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Mental Health Breakthrough.

Olympian wages a fight with depression

Derrick Adkins stood on an Olympic podium five years ago in Atlanta with a gleaming gold medal around his neck. Instead of being the happiest man in the world he was probably the saddest. Adkins suffered from depression, a mental illness that can ensnare a person in gloom and sadness for days, weeks or even years. Adkins shares his experiences in a revealing and a moving new memoir, Let's All Get High: Inspiration for the X Generation (Writer's Club Press, $11.95, ISBN 0-59512917). The satiric title pokes fun at the drug controversy that seems to swirl around Olympic athletes. The book comes at a time when the drug scandal of the 2000 games in Sydney remains fresh in the minds of many.

Adkins, 31, first gained international fame in 1995 when he became the World Champion in the 400-meter hurdles. "While I was achieving my personal goal of winning an Olympic gold medal, I don't ever remember feeling completely happy," Adkins said in a telephone interview from his home in Atlanta. "I knew what depression was, but I also knew the stigma of mental illness so that is why I never shared what I was going through with anyone. My bouts with depression actually go back to my childhood. I had a fairly happy childhood, however, I always felt a little bit odd; a little different than the other kids on the block. I can remember sometimes, I used to cry and I did not know why I was crying" After high school he was awarded a full track scholarship to Georgia Tech. He graduated with a degree in mechanical engineering in 1993 and a certificate in bioengineering. Upon graduating from Georgia Tech, he signed a contract to run for the Reebok Racing Club and eventually ran his way to both Olympic and World Championships.

"Most men my age would have been happy to be in my position," he said. "I was the complete opposite and was so deeply depressed and unhappy."

In an attempt to hide his gloom and despair Adkins became obsessed with training and running. He would spend hours on the track, running incessantly to the point of total exhaustion.

"Obsession is the cousin of depression," he said. "Depressed people become obsessed with something in an attempt to drown out the depression. My obsession with running helped to anesthetize my mood."

A common misconception about depression is that people who suffer from it are weak, unbalanced and capricious. It wasn't until the spring of 1995 that Adkins formally sought treatment for his depression and began seeing a psychiatrist. Still worried about the stigma of mental illness, Adkins explained to coaches, colleagues and friends that he was having trouble with insomnia and not depression. That year turned out to be his best year on the track circuit. "My depression ironically didn't affect my running. In fact I think it helped it. The more depressed I became, the harder I would run." Adkins ran so well that he nailed the 1995 World Championships, won a Mercedes C220 and earned a heap of money.

In 1996 he was formally diagnosed with chronic clinical depression. Doctors discovered that the serotonin levels in his brain were low. Serotonin is a chemical in the brain that regulates mood and state of mind. If the serotonin level is too low, depression and anxiety often occurs. A strict regimen of antidepressant medication and counseling are usually implemented.

A setback occurred when he failed to qualify for the 2000 Olympic Games. In addition, some medications violated the strict drug enforcement guidelines of the International Olympic Committee (IOC).

"I was disappointed at not making the team and being unable to defend my title in the 400 meters," he said. "But I managed to move on."

At any rate, since coming out publicly with his illness, many people have shared their stories with Adkins and applauded him for speaking out and acknowledging his illness. Adkins said he has been approached by at least two other Olympic athletes who also battle depression, but are reluctant to share their stories because of fear and shame.

"They told me that my book has helped them to better understand the illness and that one day they may be able to talk about it openly" he said.

Adkins continues to move forward with his life. He is studying theology, is active in church and he says another book is on the horizon.

Glenn Townes is an award-winning journalist and writer based in New Jersey. In addition to working as a newspaper reporter in the Midwest for more than 10 years, Glenn has written for dozens of national and regional publications including Black Enterprise Essence, the Miami Herald, the New York Daily News and Hispanic magazine He is a graduate of the University of Iowa School of Journalism and Mass Communication and the Writer's Workshop. Glenn will be a featured writer in an anthology that will be released in October 2001 by Doubleday/Random House Publishers in New York. The book is entitled, The African-American Writer's Guide to Non-Fiction Writing edited by Jewell Parker Rhodes. In this issue of BIBR, Glenn takes a look at an emotionally riveting and revealing personal account by 1996 Olympic gold medallist hurdler Derrick Adkins about the champion's ongoing bout with depressive illness. His insightful interview begins on page 64.
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Copyright 2001, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:Review
Author:Townes, Glenn
Publication:Black Issues Book Review
Article Type:Brief Article
Date:May 1, 2001
Words:898
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