Metta World Peace has been talking about mental health issues for several years now, speaking from the heart to young people at schools, sharing his personal trials during childhood and discussing the role that counseling has played in his life. Slowly, he says, he is seeing the effects of his openness on the topic. Where once fans mostly approached him to discuss the Lakers, now, almost daily someone will approach him to share how they have been inspired to seek mental health services.
While walking in Westwood, he recently recounted, a man approached and asked to shake his hand. Although this happens every day to the 6’7” forward, the conversation that followed took an unusual turn. Instead of asking for an autograph or photo, the man — a convicted arsonist with severe mental health issues — told Peace he had convinced him to seek counseling.
“He came up to me and said ‘you made it easier for me to get help. Thank you,’” Peace recounted before speaking at the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors meeting. “I just wanted to bring awareness to this issue; I didn’t even know that I had the potential to make a difference.”
Mental illness affects one in five people nationwide, and those who suffer from its effects are far more likely to become homeless, incarcerated and hospitalized than the general population. Currently, Peace is leading the Los Angeles County Mental Health Department’s “Talk It Out!” campaign, which runs through the month of May with billboards and posters on MTA shelters, depots, buses and trains in public transit areas around Los Angeles County that urges people to call a 24-hour-hotline if they need help.
The posters feature Peace holding a basketball and encouraging people to talk about their issues, and have a bright, lime-green-colored background for a purpose, said Marvin Southard, director of the Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health.
“We want to spread the message and put it in the limelight,” said Southard. “People with mental health issues have a sense that they are looked down upon. We know if we exclude them, we harm them.”
Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors Chairman Mark Ridley-Thomas, who commended Peace as well as longtime mental health advocate Stella March for their activism on Tuesday at the Board of Supervisors meeting, said there is no shame in dealing with mental illness.
“The lack of awareness and the stigma pose barriers to effective treatment,” he said. “We need to make sure that the people who need help, get help.”
Peace has had his own very public issues with anger management and depression. It has been a tough experience going through his challenges in front of the television cameras, but his fame has also helped him.
“People get to know you. They have seen me through bad times and good times and seen me grow as a person,” he said. “This is a lifetime of work.”
He has also seen his siblings and other relatives suffer from mental illness, and Peace says that although he is vigilant about watching his four children for signs of emotional stress, mainly he is focused on letting his kids “just be kids.”
Nonetheless, even though Peace has seen some positive effects of his public campaign, he still believes many people don’ t realize they have issue s that could be resolved with counseling and treatment.
“I got through it with help and support,” he said. “Everything in life is not perfect. You just never know if something can tick you off. You don’t realize that these things can scar you. Once you understand that about yourself, you can address those issues.”
The county has also created a 24/7 hotline in English and Spanish, that encourages young adults to seek help if they need it (1-800-854-7771).
For more information visit: http://dmh.lacounty.gov/wps/portal/dmh