Raven Saunders poses for a photo while filming her new mini-documentary, “An Olympic Athlete Suffering from Depression.”
Raven Saunders was nicknamed “The Hulk” in high school because she was friendly outside the shooting ring and fierce when it came time to throw.
However, both sides of her character were hiding a secret. In January 2018, Saunders was so depressed and anxious that she considered ending her life. There was a big landing along the Mississippi Expressway and in that hour of darkness Saunders was tempted to drive over the ledge.
A text message to an elderly therapist pulled her back and now Raven “The Hulk” Saunders truly is a superhero: She’s helping others as a mental health awareness advocate.
Saunders, who finished fifth in the women’s shot at the 2016 Rio Olympics, has appeared in a nine-minute documentary called “An Olympic Athlete Suffering from Depression.” Released last week, it is the first in the Well Beings web series “Out of the Dark” and is available on WellBeings.org and as part of the PBS Short Docs collection on PBS Voices.
“A lot of people have been affected by it,” said Saunders, who will turn 25 on May 15. “One of the craziest comments I’ve seen is that the guy was telling me his bad days and today he knows he can go ahead after watching it.
People are starting to see mental health differently. It is not something that should be stigmatized. It’s not something you fear, degrade, or look at with contempt. Each of us goes through things and nothing can change it so it’s something we can have open and honest conversations about.”
Saunders hopes the documentary will get more views “because if it doesn’t help you, it probably helps someone around you,” she said. “What may seem like the end isn’t really the end – it’s just an obstacle that you can always overcome.”
Saunders said on Twitter, “Go watch now especially if you’re going through a tough time right now with depression. You’re not alone.”
Saunders grew up in Charleston, South Carolina, where she experienced childhood traumas and struggled with confidence. She was so strong that someone suggested she try throwing the ball.
Saunders became the silver medalist of the Junior World Championships. In college, she was an NCAA indoor and outdoor champion, competing first for Southern Illinois and then for the Ole Miss. As a sophomore, Saunders made the 2016 Olympic team as one of the few college athletes in track and field.
Highs and Lows
Saunders was pleased with her Olympic performance and came home from Rio on a hike. There was a show in her hometown on Raven Saunders’ Day.
But no one warned her about the post-Olympic disappointment. “Immediately after that, it feels like an accident, because there are a lot of reinforcements and there is time to stop,” Saunders said.
While she was back in school, her new friends were professional athletes. Saunders’ 2017 collegiate season saw some setbacks and after winning her first US National title, she disappointingly finished 10th in the world championships.
In the documentary, Saunders said she carries “the weight of the world on my chest.” She didn’t realize she was suffering from depression and hid her feelings. She didn’t want to feel like a concern for the people you love or be a burden.
On that day in early 2018, Saunders didn’t see a way out — except maybe that cliff.
At Ole Miss, she was diagnosed with attention deficit disorder and worked with a therapist. They kept in touch after upgrading the processor, but hadn’t been in touch for about a year.
Saunders made a decision: “She’s the one I’m going to text and if she doesn’t text back, whatever happens.”
The therapist sent a text message. She told Saunders to hold on tight as she called Ole Miss officials who helped her check into a mental health facility.
“All the things that have been weighing on me for 22 years, I finally got to work it out,” said Saunders, who has been diagnosed with depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress syndrome.
She dropped out of school during the month saying she needed to “take some time out and focus on myself”.
People wondered what’s going on with the promising shooting racket. On January 17, 2020, Saunders filled in the blanks. She tweeted a photo of her arm wearing wrist bands from the mental health facility and shared her story about that fateful day.
“Every day I live is a gift because this could have been my last,” she wrote on Twitter.
Saunders said she was touched to announce the story of Bryce Jody, a 17-year-old soccer player who signed with Georgia Tech. His family was homeless and one night Judy walked down some train tracks and was killed.
“He had so much that he just can’t handle it,” Saunders said. “I remembered being in a deep place, not many people knew exactly what to say or think. I felt like if I shared my story, I could motivate another kid to keep fighting the same way I did.”
She said that the response to her revelation was “overwhelming love. A lot of people were thanking me for being brave enough to share my story, and people would share with me loved ones who were lost, loved ones who were almost lost or how they almost lost themselves.”
“And that was a lot at first, because I was still very weak — and still a little bit about it. But just being able to hear how I help people or talk to people who say, ‘Hey, this helped me move on today,'” It feels great. It really helps me keep pushing.”
Saunders said she’s asking people to check in with their teammates, families and coaches.
“We always talk about checking on your powerful friends,” Saunders, who tweeted last month, said, “It’s crazy how some of the nicest things/people get broken too.”
The pandemic has brought more mental health challenges.
“It was a tough time we were all going to be athletes, and we couldn’t train and things like that,” Saunders said. “So if someone posts something that might look like they’re struggling a bit, I text them, ‘Hey, keep pushing. “
Speak like a racket shot.
And while Saunders is always willing to listen, she encourages people who are going through tough times to find a therapist.
She tells them to “try shopping, because finding a good therapist is like dating: you have to find the right person for you. Don’t just take it out if the first thing isn’t right.”
As for her state of mind, Saunders said, “I’m a lot better off. I’m not going to make it sound like peach and cream, because that’s not the truth when it comes to mental health. You still have your struggles, you still fight your battles. I don’t want people looking at me and saying Me, “Oh, you got it all.”
“But I have dealt with it, and I know the coping mechanisms. I know things to do.”
Breathe, breathe, breathe
Saunders said that when she feels anxious or depressed, she focuses on her breathing and may meditate or do yoga.
She said, “I definitely need to take deep breaths and focus on the most positive thing I can do in this situation, and just try not to make myself sink into a hole.”
Saunders, who trains in Alabama, is also a part-time coach, and if the athletes seem anxious, she tells them, “Hey, please make sure you’re breathing before you enter the ring.”
Once the youngest player for Team USA on the international stage, she has now found herself a role model for potential Olympians.
“A number of them, even some young African Americans who are part of the LGBTQ community, have come to me to tell me how influential I am,” Saunders said. “It’s crazy, because when I grew up looking at who I should look up to, these athletes pushed me, and now I’m in the same situation. That’s why I challenge myself every day to keep fighting.”
You also tell them, “Find love in doing what you love and spend your time doing it. And they will pay you back.”
Saunders loves to throw the ball. In June you will compete in the Olympic Team Trials – Track and Field in Eugene, Oregon, against a loaded field. “The first three are going (to Tokyo), and I know for a fact, I’m going,” she said.
The extra year due to the postponement gave Saunders more time to recover from hip surgery. Earlier this year, she set a personal best indoor record of 19.57 metres.
She feels like The Hulk more than ever.
“Remember, the Hulk can be the good structure that saves everything or the Hulk can be the one who destroys everything,” Saunders said.
“For me, the depressing side would be like the negative side of The Hulk. That was the side that was trying to drag me down, things that could destroy me, but also that could help me if I used them in a positive way in track and field.
“I’ve learned how to control it.”
If you or someone you know has a mental health issue and is looking to connect with a mental health provider, please contact Team USA Mental Health Support Line (24/7) at +1 (719) 866-CALL. In the process of helping yourself, you may be inspiring others to seek help as well.
For more information on mental health resources, please visit TeamUSA.org/MentalHealth.