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College coach urges mentally ill to overcome stigma, seek help

Coach Mark Potter

Mark Potter seemed to have it all: a happy family life and a successful career as a college basketball coach.

And then, in a little over a month, his life felt like it was unraveling. Anxiety and depression gnawed at his being, slowly consuming him with despair.

“In a nutshell, I was mentally ill. I was sick,” recalls Mark, 50, the men’s basketball coach at Newman University in Wichita, Kan. for 15 years. “The normal worries that you have were magnified 100 times – you just couldn’t get them out of your head. I didn’t want to eat. I didn’t want to go out in public. I didn’t want to talk to anybody.”

Mark’s battle with clinical depression nine years ago illustrates the importance of family support in overcoming a mental illness. Mark successfully broke through the despair with a doctor’s help, medication, therapy – and the support of his wife Nanette and their two children. Today, Mark and Nanette advocate seeking professional help immediately.

“My ultimate goal, my passion, is to get the word out to counteract the stigma of mental illness and to let people know you must go get help,” Mark says. “It’s so important to get help from your family doctor or a mental health professional.”

Nanette, a reading teacher at Cheney Elementary School, says many people who ask for her advice confide that their loved ones simply refuse to seek help. “Mental illness can be addressed with medication and therapy,” she says. “So why wouldn’t we try that?” 

Hitting ‘rock bottom’

Mark and Nanette grew up in Sedan in southeast Kansas and have been married for 29 years. Mark played three sports in high school and excelled at basketball, once scoring 36 points in a tournament game. After playing in college, Mark worked as a high school basketball coach for more than a decade before becoming leader of the Newman men’s team.

In the fall of 2004, Mark should have been relaxed and riding high as his team prepared for a new season after competing in the NCAA Division II national tournament the previous year.

Mark had experienced several bouts of mild depression earlier in his adult life, but now something wasn’t right. “This time it nailed me at a different level,” he recalls “It continued to get worse every day. I basically hit rock bottom.”

His wife initially tried to coach him through the depression. “I would say, ‘You’re not going to give into this. We’re going to keep fighting this,’” Nanette recalls.

But her husband’s slide continued. Five weeks later, as Newman prepared to start its new season, Mark could not go on. “I have tears rolling down my face and I cannot control it,” he says. 

Saving a teen’s life

Nanette insisted he get professional help – first from Mark’s family physician and then from a therapist. Mark’s absence from the team during his recovery raised questions.
Nanette persuaded him to talk publicly about his experience in hopes of helping others. After sharing his story with The Wichita Eagle, Mark received hundreds of emails and phone calls from people thanking him. He also received a letter from a teen who said Mark’s story saved his life by prompting him to ask for help. 

“Every time I talk about the letter,” Mark says, “I get emotional because I think, if I hadn’t agreed to share my story, I wouldn’t be doing what God had put me on this Earth to do -- to help others and, hopefully, make a difference.”

Today, people from all walks of life regularly seek out Mark and Nanette for guidance. Their advice is consistent: Seek medical care. And do it now.

“I didn’t know what depression could do if you just left it alone,” Nanette says. “Now, I know the number one thing is to go get help.” 

 

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