I’m Mike Watkins and I have Mental Health Issues

Over the past couple of weeks, Black Cager Sports Media has met, several times, with Penn State Basketball Star Michael Watkins to discuss the role depression and bipolar disorder have played in his encounters with law enforcement officials. Delgreco Wilson worked closely with Watkins during his last two years of high school. The two have remained friends as Mike has matriculated at Penn State. This is Watkins’ story as told to Wilson.

No longer… No more… Never again will I be afraid to share my story. While I am in the most precarious position I have ever been in, I have never been in a better position to help others.

For most of my life, my lack of mental health awareness and education has prevented me from honestly engaging the topic. Today, I realize that I can play a small role in preventing this problem from persisting especially among young Black men from tough inner city backgrounds. We don’t talk about depression, anxiety and suicide in the ‘hood.’

That is really unfortunate and needs to change.


Mike Watkins, Penn State Student-Athlete

I now realize that distorted views about mental health can cause individuals who are struggling to feel confused, isolated, embarrassed, and ashamed. Further, these sentiments are enhanced for elite athletes such as myself. So many of my friends, family members and loved ones expect me to make it to the NBA. I must admit, their expectations and the pressures associated with them have served as obstacles in my journey towards getting help. Today my message is clear, athletic success and the need for mental health help aren’t mutually exclusive.

More than anything else, I truly realize the God has placed me within the Penn State community to save my life. By far, these have been the best years of my life.

Penn State has offered me a level of support and stability that I could not even imagine prior to coming on campus. The warning signs were always there. I attended six (6) different high schools. After starting off at West Philadelphia High School, I was referred to Daniel Boone for a series of disciplinary infractions. After a while, I was placed in another disciplinary school, CEP. I was clearly suffering from undiagnosed and unaddressed mental health issues during this period. However, I had begun to internalize the notion that I was a “bad” kid. In many ways, I was unconsciously trying to live up to that reputation.

Eventually, I was placed back into a regular education environment at my neighborhood school, John Bartram HS. For the first time, I started to take basketball seriously. Although, I didn’t really work hard at it, I had some early success and people began to take notice. I began to feel good about myself as a player. Basketball became a possible means of accessing a better life. I decided to transfer MCS to play with and against better competition. While we had one of the better teams in the area, I really didn’t pay attention to the academic side of the student-athlete equation. As a result, I wasn’t really being prepared to enter college.


Mike Watkins at MCS

I decided to do a year at Phelps Prep School to prepare for the rigors of a college curriculum. Finally, I was admitted to Penn State but I was not eligible to play as a freshman. That was one of the best things that has ever happened to me. I spent the 2015-16 becoming acclimated to life in State College, Pennsylvania. With the encouragement and support of the basketball coaches and my academic advisors, I had the best academic year of my life.

For the first time, it was okay to admit I didn’t understand a topic or concept. It was like a light had been turned on. Once I understood that I would not be judged and the material would be explained in a manner I could comprehend, I excelled. I realized that I belonged in my classes. I looked forward to learning. I actually learned how to learn. For that, I will forever be grateful to Penn State.


Then it happened… All of my life violence and mayhem have been my neighbors. I have heard gun shots too many times to count. I have seen miles of yellow police tape marking the boundaries of “crime scenes.” ‘Slinging dope’ is the most common entry level job around my way. As a result, far more of my friends are in the penitentiary than are in college. I’ve seen a lot of things no young kid should ever have to see. I’ve even watched  dozens of mothers lose their maternal instinct in pursuit of the next high.

But this was different… He died in my arms. I literally felt life leave his body. While I know he went to Heaven, I was impacted in ways I have been struggling to understand ever since.

It just never seemed fair. It wasn’t right. I could not let go of the image of my best friend dying in my arms. Each time I thought about it, it was if it just occurred… the tears, the pain, the raw emotion became inescapable. I locked myself in my room. I didn’t want to be around my friends and teammates. Basketball brought me no joy. I started lashing out at my coaches and academic counselors. I tried to dull the pain with alcohol.

My depression impacted my decision-making. I now know this. I write it not as an excuse for my behavior. I did what I did. I own it. However, I want those I have negatively impacted to know that I now understand that “hurt people” turn around and hurt people.

I was hurting.

With the support and encouragement of Coach Chambers and the other coaches I sought professional help. I was prescribed Adderall and fexofenadine and began to see a psychologist. I tried various combinations of medication with varying effect and I have been able to develop some coping skills and begin to deal with the loss of my best friend.

Over the past couple of years, I have continued to work through my issues with some wonderful mental health professionals. I have good days and I have bad days. Truth be told, there have been times where I have self-medicated with alcohol and other substances.

At my lowest, I was hospitalized this past June after I expressed some suicidal ideations.  After threatening to jump from a balcony, I was declared a danger to myself. While I never acted upon these thoughts, they did exist. Truth matters. This I have learned.

While I have improved in a lot of ways, every day is a struggle. Recently, my behaviors have once again been the focus of media attention. I was wrong. I impulsively made another poor decision. I truly regret placing President Barron, Athletic Director Barbour and Coach Chambers in a position where they are called upon to explain their feelings about my poor decision-making. They have done nothing but helped me through very trying times. In return, I have failed to uphold my end of the bargain.

I publicly apologize for bringing negative attention to Penn State University.

What I want the people at Penn State to understand is that this most recent episode and any of earlier negative behaviors are not reflections of my feelings toward the community.

I love Penn State. Penn State has saved my life.

Because I enrolled at Penn State, I have an understanding of the source of some of the sadness and pain I endure. Because I enrolled at Penn State, I understand the anxiety and impulsiveness that lead to my poor decision-making.

Because I enrolled at Penn State I am a better man.

Michael Watkins

We Are…Penn State!”



19 responses

  1. While I appreciate your candor, punching a McDonalds patron in the face is your 4th known criminal violation since arriving at Penn State. At some point, you have to learn from your mistakes as that behavior is NOT Penn State behavior.

    • I think maybe you chose the wrong username. This man has just decided to publicly open up about his struggles and has taken full responsibility for his actions. A “born leader” would recognize the strength and courage of those actions and would support him, not try to distance him from the Penn State community.

      Mike, We Are proud of you. We Are here for you. We Are your family through both the good and the bad.

    • You don’t think he’s learning from his mistakes? The fact that he is taking responsibility for his actions and seeking help for admitted mental health problems should be commended. We’ll see where he goes from here, but it takes guts to lay your insecurities and shortcomings bare for the world to see in a public forum. It’s a good first step toward redemption and I’m glad he wrote it.

      FWIW – I’m a Penn State alum and basketball fan and I personally know multiple people with PSU degrees and successful jobs who did worse things, and on more occasions, than the offenses MW is/was accused of. Was that “Penn State behavior” or was it just what happens when 18-22 year olds get placed among 30K others with no supervision for the first time in their lives? I’m not condoning violence, I’m just saying bad things are bound to happen, and usually do, at the downtown State College McDonald’s after 2am.

      Good luck to Mike, I hope Penn State continues to provide him with the support he needs to succeed in life.

    • https://twitter.com/canes77/status/1063797404938440705 – This is so applicable to this post. Rise above the criticism and stay strong!!! Your story is an incredibly brave one to tell. You’re not alone in this world in your fears, depression and anxiety. (I also lost a best friend and was very depressed.) We need to talk much more about mental health without the fear of judgement. By telling your story, you’re not only helping yourself but helping others to speak up. Many prayers and blessings to you…

  2. Mike, your openness, transparency, & the candor in how you have shared your story certainly demonstrate how much you have matured in your time in State College.
    As someone who is more familiar with mental health, particularly major depression and suicidal ideation, the very best thing you have done is asked for help from those close to you and then accepted & embraced proper psychiatric care.
    As a PSU student-athlete alum (too many years ago to mention!!!), the level of support beyond the locker room & field of play that the PSU Ath. Dpt provides is top of the game and I think way too many student-athletes during their years in Happy Valley avoid seeking support due to a fear of what 1 says to a psychiatrist or therapist in getting back to the coach & affecting his/her position within “the team.”
    My how that is such the wrong perspective & far from the truth.
    In sharing your story, you are helping dampen a stigma that is held heaviest in certain communities, such as athletics, and I hope that any and every one reading your story realizes that while the simple request of “I need help, can you help me?” carries such a burden to express, 1 will be comforted and amazed in the amount of help that is offered.

    Cheers to you and I’ll be rooting for your successes on the court and more importantly off the court in the game of life!


  3. Pingback: Grassroots Classroom: The Black Cager – Equal Opportunities for Students

  4. ❤️💯 I commend u mike this is definitely a deeper side of u I’ve never seen before. I know u know everyone’s proud of u keep up the great work and DONT stop !

  5. Thank you for sharing your story. Your honesty shows that you have great potential and I have no doubt that you will get the help you need.

  6. Mike i’m so proud of you damn boy i’m so proud of you. i am glad you told this story and you learned from your mistakes and you seeking help. watch the man you become and i love it 😊 keep on pushing through yes at times mau seem a lil rough but you remember it’s gonna be a brighter day love you big mike #pennstate #BornALeader you and quan watch out for each other now (y’all always had each other back, no matter what )

  7. Mike while at JBHS you demonstrated that u were not only a gifted athlete but a fine young man. On the court and off the court you did your best meet every academic and athletic requirement we placed on you. You didn’t complain about the standardized test we ask you to take. You didn’t complain about the shirt and tie we required you to wear to all away games. As a matter of fact you knew how to wear it and wore it well. Even though your stay with us was short it was enlightening. We just wish that those individuals who wanted to fight over control of your athletic talent would have been more concerned about Mike the person instead of Mike the basketball player. You have and will always have our support. Continue to be the strong man you are and God Bless You Mike.

  8. Mike, thank you so much for sharing that .It’s something that needed to be put out in the open. Mental health issues is not a dirty Secret . Mental health is just as important as physical and emotional health. And I know that inner city violence and police brutality really really affects our young black men. Who do they talk to about these things. Keep fighting the good fight young King. Show the world what u got. I’m praying for you and u know your grandmom Dot expects you to win.

  9. I commend you for opening up and accepting your illness. That is a hard step to make and there are lots who succumb right here, never admitting they have a fault. I have ADHD, and like you it was not acknowledged or treated until I was in my 20’s. Also like you, it took me making very bad decisions and experiencing legal troubles for me to get help. The difference comes in our upbringing. I grew up in a middle class family surrounded by family who only wanted what is best for me. I don’t know anything about your family upbringing and won’t speculate, all I know is that I am not from the hood and didn’t experience any of the things you wrote about above. But issues with mental health affect people from all backgrounds and tend to lead us all down the same path towards legal issues.

    This first step is important, and the start of a new journey for you. Yours will be a bit harder than mine was I think, because of all the demands placed upon you with division 1 basketball. I was also a college athlete, I had a scholarship to play soccer. That only lasted one year as I flamed out by never going to class. So when I had my diagnosis and started my road to understanding myself I was advised to try and eliminate the unnecessary background noise from my life. You won’t get to do that, as you are in season and people’s livelihood’s depend on your participation in sports, as does your ability to go to Penn State on scholarship. In fact you are playing my favorite team, Michigan, tonight. ( I wish you luck, just not too much ) Once you get passed this acceptance step, the real work begins. I struggled with this, thinking that just taking the medication and talking to my psychiatrist and psychologist would fix me. The truth was I had to make some hard realizations about myself and my thinking. I suspect you will face similar issues. Bi-polar disorder is no joke, and can be a nightmare for the afflicted person and those around them if left unchecked. That won’t be you though. While going through this recovery don’t be discouraged by set backs. You have to basically re-learn yourself. It has been almost 20 years since I was diagnosed and started my treatment and I still have to ask my loved ones questions about my actions to make sure I am making good decisions. I also still fuck up, probably always will. It doesn’t go away, you just learn to be smarter. Don’t be ashamed, don’t be discouraged, and don’t be afraid to continue to put yourself out there. Ask people if something comes up and your struggling to deal with it. There will always be judgmental assholes, ignore them as they aren’t worth your time.

    Good luck Mike Watkins, I look forward to following your continued rise in the world of basketball. Even more I look forward to seeing your growth in dealing with your mental illness by the lack of negative stories about you. I also hope you have a great game tonight, but remember, not too great. 🙂

  10. I’m a lifelong Michigan fan, certainly there’s no great love for Penn State in my heart, but I have great respect for you after reading this Mr Watkins, and even a bit more love for Penn State.

    You’ll stumble again, we all do, and that’s ok. Keep learning, keep building that self awareness.

    Thank you for sharing your story, and good luck tonight!

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