Unpacking the Complexity of Brittney Griner’s Mental Health as a Black Woman Athlete

Unpacking the Complexity of Brittney Griner’s Mental Health as a Black Woman Athlete

“We don’t talk about things, we don’t talk about our feelings, put it in a box and forget about it. It’s something that’s hurt us as a society.” Those were the words of Brittney Griner last year, explaining why she left the WNBA the previous summer for mental health reasons.

Unfortunately, this mentality seems to permeate Americans across the country as the WNBA star struggles to escape false imprisonment and a politically charged prosecution from Russia.

When considering the ludicrous dilemma, it’s important to understand the complexity of her position and how it may impact her mental state. Being under this type of scrutiny proves to be difficult for many athletes of color. Not to mention the stigma around mental health that still exists in the Black community.

Coincidentally, the mental health issues Griner called attention to last year are directly affecting her. Many Americans are trying to downplay or make light of her situation, urging her to “move on.” Historical biases have restricted the Black community, especially Black women. Even still, Black women receive a lot of pressure in the community. Because Black women are expected to be strong, society struggles to support Griner, who seems to be caught in a political ploy.

Perceiving Griner’s imprisonment through a biased lens feeds a narrative that neither values African American women nor provides them with safe environments to heal. This portrayal, along with the strain of detainment, is likely to negatively impact Griner’s mental health.

Imagine being imprisoned in a country with different social, cultural, and legal rules — this alone is cause for extreme concern. The way Griner is being treated in the media likely causes distress. We all should be extremely concerned for Griner’s mental and physical health; the longer she is detained, the more severe her symptoms may become. We also must consider Griner’s spouse and family, as they may feel hopeless and may experience their own trauma.

Despite her home country being conflicted about supporting her case, Griner has shown impressive mental fortitude as Russian politics continue to unfairly disrupt her return. Her family has been an important source of mental strength as they’ve sent her letters, organized civil and human rights organizations to help her case, and pleaded with President Biden to take more action. Griner’s family still hasn’t heard anything from the President or his administration. Griner’s wife, Cherelle Griner, has only been able to communicate through letters, which presumably has helped sustain her sanity.

Support systems are essential to improving and sustaining mental health. It’s clear that once Griner gets through this, she will need treatment — but therapy may not be enough. She will need her family and friends. Without a healthy support system, mental health improvements can be stalled or take significantly longer to progress.

The biggest lesson to take away from Griner’s situation is to talk openly about mental health, and understand the importance of support systems. Without these systems, it’s easy to lose our ability to stay grounded and process our experiences.

Darren D. Moore, Ph.D., is a licensed marriage and family therapist in Georgia, Alabama, New York, North Carolina, Illinois, and Florida (telehealth credential), owner of I AM MOORE, LLC, a counseling and consulting practice in Georgia providing individual, couple, and family therapy services, including mental health. Dr. Moore is also core faculty and associate director for Clinical Training and Supervision, in the master’s Program in Marriage and Family Therapy at the Family Institute, Northwestern University.