On the morning of June 6, UNC football player Jake Lawler nervously stood in front of his teammates, after a workout with the team.
For the better part of eight years, Lawler had battled depression and suicidal thoughts. And he’d done it alone.
Lawler said he never gave his teammates a reason to question how the fun-loving defensive end was feeling. He’d never sought out therapy, or any sort of professional help. His parents, in fact, didn’t know what he’d been going through before this summer, when he told them himself.
“I felt that it was my burden,” Lawler said. “And I felt that if anyone was going to suffer, it was going to be me.”
The remedy he always defaulted to was writing. It was the only activity that gave him complete agency — the only pastime where he ever felt fully in control and not at the beck and call of the version of himself that didn’t want to live.
Even then, though, the fulfilling effect of his writing would eventually fade. Soon after he was done, he’d lose control, and he’d be alone again.
But that Thursday in early June, in front of his teammates, Lawler was ready for a change.
He’d written a 2300-word blog entry that he planned on publishing later that afternoon. The post details his pain as he discerns when his depression first spawned, starting from the bullying and isolation he experienced in middle school, before he ever put on any football pads. It articulates how his depression evolved into a monster he couldn’t fight anymore without help. It also describes the two times in his life he tried to commit suicide — once as a sophomore in high school, and once earlier this year.
“Writing it at first was selfish, for me,” Lawler said. “It was just for my kind of cathartic purposes. I thought it would be a release to kind of help get out the kind of bad energy that has been in my body and just swirling.
“But halfway through writing it, I kind of realized that this story could save someone’s life.”
Lawler, not wanting to blind-side his team with its publication, told a few coaches about what he was going through and asked the Tar Heels’ strength and conditioning coach, Brian Hess, if he could speak to his teammates that Thursday morning.
Hess welcomed it.
And then the time came: Hess gave Lawler the floor, and the defensive end prepared to divulge his long-held secret, so he, at last, could start a new life.
‘That’s not my complete self’
The art of his secrecy, Lawler said, involved more than just staying quiet.
It required a long, exhausting effort of putting on a front — one that preemptively shot down any reason to think that he was anything but happy.
“I think the mask that I’ve worn for so long is that I’m exactly that — that I’m outspoken, that I’m, you know, a fun-loving individual,” Lawler said. “And the reason why the mask was so strong, and why it was invulnerable, and (why it withstood) any kind of trouble or any kind of breakdown is because I’ve been wearing it for years.”
In so many words, he’d gotten good at faking how he felt. If this was to be his suffering, he wasn’t going to bring anyone down with him — and to do that, he had to be engaging and entertaining and fun.
“That’s what I was,” Lawler said. “And that’s what I am. I think that the better part of myself is someone that is outgoing and is extroverted and is willing to go and do a lot of the things that are enjoyable.
“But that’s not my complete self. And I wish it was.”
His complete self, rather, is a combination of the two: He’s the extrovert — the athlete who wears round-rimmed glasses and has an unabashedly unique taste in music. He loves older rhythm and blues, like Marvin Gaye and Sam Cooke and Al Green, but also has an affinity for rock and roll, and he one day wants to be a screenwriter.
But he’s also the depressed individual — the man who was bullied for how he looked and was isolated for his biracial identity at a transformative age, who regularly disappears for hours at a time, filling his time sitting on benches on UNC’s quad, alone with overwhelming surges of suicidal thoughts.
He’d never been open to the idea of letting people see his full self. And at times, he thought he’d, in fact, figured it out on his own. As Lawler documents in his blog post, there was a moment when he thought that he was permanently happy, after he published a short fiction story that was greeted with praise.
“In January of 2019, I finished my story,” he writes. “It was exhilarating. I didn’t know if other people would enjoy my work but I was immensely proud of myself and when the overwhelmingly positive response did come in, I was overjoyed. For a moment, I thought my depression had gone again.”
But he thought wrong, he said: Two weeks after publishing his story, he stood at the top of a parking deck on UNC’s campus, the only thing on his mind being when he was going to step off.
He writes that he doesn’t know why or how he didn’t jump. But it’s because he’s still here that he decided to make a change. With the help of his roommate, fellow football player Michael Carter, and other friends, Lawler started to let more people in. As a result, the weight of his depression stopped feeling as heavy all the time.
Before long, he decided to write that post and tell his teammates and coaches. So, after a workout, pushing through the general worries he had about letting people in, he opened up.
“I expressed that they have been an integral part of my survival, really,” Lawler said. “And even if none of them had known, just their kind of support and their openness, and their candor, and their ability to be good and decent people and to accept the strange kid … have been and will continue to be why I’m trying to make this change.”
Lawler said the response was nothing but overwhelming support.
“I think that there’s a stigma that depression shouldn’t be talked about, and if it is talked about, it’s going to be looked down upon,” Lawler said. “And (my teammates) completely shattered that. I was nervous that people would maybe not believe me, or maybe say it’s not as bad, or I’m overexaggerating — but it’s been nothing like that, especially with them.”
In a statement, Tar Heel head coach Mack Brown said that he’s proud of Lawler.
“We’ve talked to our team about looking out for each other, trying to take care of each other, but sometimes, you just don’t know someone is hurting ...” Brown said. “By sharing his story, he’s not only helping himself come to terms with what he’s dealing with, but he may help someone else, which is what he’s hoping to do by going public with this.”
The afternoon after he opened up to his team, Lawler posted his blog to Twitter. Two weeks after it was posted, Lawler’s tweet had more than 300 retweets, 1,600 favorites and 120 responses. Lawler said he’d anticipated people offering their “run-of-the-mill” responses — “never hesitate to reach out,” or “I’m here for you” — but that he couldn’t predict the amount of people that would open up to him, including people who he’d never met, who’ve encountered the same evils Lawler had been suffering from.
“And that’s been amazing to me because (my depression) has never been anything good for me,” Lawler said. “But my hope was that if I would be able to divert it in a way that was explanatory and emotional, and could evoke these different sorts of things and elicit some of the responses like the ones I’m getting, maybe it would do some good.”
If he needs to be, Lawler said he’s willing to be an advocate for mental wellness among athletes.
He said he’d seen professional players speak up and raise awareness about mental health in sports, but he’d never seen a college athlete do this.
“I think, for one, professional athletes are older, and they’ve been through more,” Lawler said. “And I also think it’s an autonomy thing as well.”
Lawler made mention of Kevin Love’s piece published in The Players’ Tribune — a story about the NBA all-star’s battle with depression, even when he seemed to have it all as a professional athlete: “He’s not just an extension of whatever team he plays for. He’s Kevin Love. And when you have that autonomy, and when you have that agency, you can create these pieces without worrying about, you know, any extension.”
Dwight Hollier, a senior associate athletic director for student-athlete health at UNC, said that messaging in sports from a young age has helped fortify a stigma associated with mental health in sports. Before coming to UNC in this role, Hollier played for Brown as a Tar Heel, and played several years as a pro linebacker.
“The environment that I competed in were environments where I was often told, ‘Suck it up. Push through it. Get back out there. Brush it off,’” Hollier said. “And when you hear those messages, it becomes your way of operating in the world.
“So having a hurt that you can’t really describe — that’s maybe something that you’re not sure what it is — instead of addressing it, instead of talking about it, we, men in particular, are closed off and have shut down, instead of addressing those issues.”
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, one in five adults experience a mental illness at some point in their lifetimes. And, per researchers at Drexel University and Kean University, 23.7 percent of collegiate athletes reported “clinically relevant” levels of depressive symptoms.
Hollier cited several programs available to UNC athletes and staff set in place for mental health wellness — from one-on-one opportunities with the program’s full-time sports psychologist, to various educational mandatory tutorials, to mental health “Ted Talks,” where fellow college athletes get up and share their stories.
“Addressing mental health and mental wellness and understanding that mental health is a continuum, I think that’s the important part,” Hollier said. “And we all fall somewhere in between that … The more we can create environments like that, where student athletes feel supported, where they can speak up and share their stories and share their challenges, we’re all going to get better from that.”
Two months ago, Lawler felt helpless, giving way to the intrinsic pressure of carrying his crushing weight of depression alone. And now — his fight with depression no longer a secret — he’s prepared to be an advocate for those like him, who have yet to speak up.
“The worst and most terrifying thing about mental health is that it’s invisible,” Lawler said. “I think the reaction from the team shattered my perception of how people view it, but now, people need to discuss it and get it out in the open.”