Mark Potter put his right index finger about a quarter-inch from his thumb while standing in front of an audience Thursday afternoon in the Southwestern Community College gymnasium.
The former all-state athlete from Kansas, and 30-year high school and college basketball coach recalled a moment 15 years ago that began a journey of healing from severe depression, and a new career as a public speaker on the topic. Thursday’s stop at SWCC was his third appearance this week in Iowa.
“I was this close to driving my car 100 miles an hour into a telephone pole and ending my life,” Potter told the audience of athletes, students and staff members from Southwestern.
“I was in a dark place with my thoughts,” Potter recalled. “In five weeks I lost 30 pounds, I didn’t feel like eating. I found myself crying and I had no idea why. The fire and passion I had with my team all those years, I was faking it. It was a cloud of hopelessness. Every normal problem that came up, it seemed 100 times worse than it really was because I couldn’t deal with it.”
It was a struggle that perplexed the successful coach who had revived the men’s basketball program at his alma mater, Newman University in Wichita, Kansas. His team was coming off a 25-win season, qualifying for the national tournament. The start of a new season was just ahead. Normally he would be charged with energy during that period.
Potter said there was not a traumatic event that triggered his bout of depression. To this day he is not sure why he was afflicted with such a severe case of depression, but it wasn’t until his wife insisted he get help at a mental health services clinic that a regimen of anti-depressant medication, regular counseling and time at home to recover that he began to feel like himself again.
Over five weeks Potter missed eight games and 28 practices that season. He calls mental illness – which he described as a chemical imbalance in the brain that basically left him paralyzed in hopelessness – a “silent epidemic” because often those afflicted, as well as society in general, are resistant to talk about it.
Potter said depression doesn’t discriminate. It can affect anybody. He read an excerpt from the wife of an attorney who committed suicide.
“She said her husband came from a culture where it is shameful to ask for help, to be vulnerable and to not be perfect,” Potter said. “That’s the world many of us live in. I was working in athletics. In tough times we’re taught to suck it up and be tougher. I’m here to tell you there’s nothing wrong about feeling vulnerable, about not feeling perfect. I coached more than 800 games and won a lot of championships, but my greatest victory was over severe depression.”
After he rose from that private darkness and “became himself” again, Mark and wife Nanette formed a company D2UP.org, as they toured the country bringing a message of hope to audiences. He said one person at a time, particularly the generation of college students in Thursday’s audience, can change the rising tide of suicide rates in the United States.
Potter spoke of many young people who had not sought help in time, or had someone around them picking up on the cues of depression. Among those were former Washington State quarterback Tyler Hilinski in 2018, and the 21-year-old grandson of former Kansas State football coach Bill Snyder, a coaching icon in the state of Kansas.
“We all have struggles,” Potter said, tears forming in his eyes as he spoke. “Statistics show that when we start talking about our struggles, we can get help. When you’re feeling vulnerable, talk to your brothers, your sisters, your teammates, your coaches, your counselor, your instructors. Whoever it is you feel comfortable with, just talk to them one on one.”
Potter said suicide is the second-leading cause of death for the ages of 10 to 45 in the United State. Breaking the silence of the epidemic is the first step in changing the tide, he said. Those who notice something in a friend or relative should take action “at the first sign” of someone texting or speaking in any manner that’s related to suicidal thoughts.
“I knew the only thing I could do wrong was to do nothing,” Nanette Potter said, after receiving a call from Mark one day in her first grade classroom. Mark said, ‘I’m crying and I can’t leave my office.’ He called later that he was OK and I didn’t need to come. But, my radar was up. Because, now it was affecting our jobs.”
She called their insurance company for a list of mental health service agencies covered by insurance, and made an appointed that she “insisted” he keep, even though he showed resistance to the idea at first.
That first step, he said, saved his life.
The Southwestern Athletic Department and Greater Regional Health co-sponsored the appearance of Potter and his wife.
Anyone interested in learning more about the company can look at the website, d2up.org; send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org; view the twitter site @markpotterD2UP; Facebook at D2UP; or Instagram at mpotter1515.
Potter acknowledges that people often post the happy times and cute pictures from their lives on Facebook, leading to more depression-related thoughts of those who compare their lives to others. But, he warned, the bad parts of their lives, the struggles under the surface, are not made public. So, those comparisons people make are often made under false pretenses.
On the other hand, Potter said, the sharing of stories and information on social media related to mental health and the benefits of professional services and medication can encourage someone to take that first step toward recovery.
“It’s OK to struggle,” Potter said. “What’s not OK is to not do something about it.”