As a student at Cass Technical High School in Detroit, Michigan, Joe Barksdale was a heralded four-star recruit who went on to play college football at Louisiana State University before being drafted in the third round by the Oakland Raiders in 2011. After paying his dues and proving himself in the NFL, Barksdale signed a multimillion-dollar, four-year extension in 2016 with the Chargers, now based in Los Angeles.
Primarily a starter on a primetime team in the second-biggest market in the country, few would have guessed that the 6’ 5” Barksdale, 29, had been suffering from debilitating depression stemming from previously repressed childhood trauma. Nonetheless, the offensive tackle, who, just last November was preempted from committing self-harm by his wife, Brionna, is awoken to his personal demons and is trying to get the word out about mental illness and wellness. He has succeeded insofar that on April 26th, at the Beverly Hilton, he will be honored with a Mental Health Ambassador distinction at the Didi Hirsch Health Services 2018 Erasing the Stigma Leadership Awards.
While Barksdale still finds that opening the lines of communication for issues regarding mental health remains an ongoing process, the offensive lineman and also musician is now in a position to not just change his own life, but inform others experiencing a similar ordeal that they’re not alone.
Recently, Barksdale spoke at length with LAexcites on the personal and professional roads he has traveled up until this point, his experience with chronic depression, his views on mental health, and how he’s working on turning his burden into a strength.
First off, congratulations on this upcoming award on mental health that will be bestowed upon you for your much-needed contribution to the topic.
Barksdale: Thank you so much; I appreciate that!
What are some of your most memorable collegiate and professional moments, and ones you learned most from as not only an athlete, but as a human being?
Barksdale: The biggest thing in my collegiate career was winning a National Championship. Most people might think I was super-excited, but I wasn’t because I didn’t feel I contributed much. I realized I wanted to be someone people depended on, and I wanted to be great.
In the NFL, it was when I got cut by the Raiders. The reason is because I learned a lot from the politics, and from an athlete/player standpoint, to continue improving, and that nothing is given to you. Sometimes the most talented players aren’t always on the team.
Is it fair to say that sometimes the pressure of being in hyper-competitive sports, particularly football, contributes to not only the highs but the lows? How do you try to find the middle ground?
Barksdale: You got to focus on you and your technique: Are you helping the team succeed or are you holding them back? It comes back to the phrase that you ‘control what you can control.’ You can’t control the outcome of the game, but you can control your performance and focus on your job and what’s important.
As you’ve mentioned in previous interviews, your wife Brionna stopped you last November as you were sharpening a knife with the intention of self-harm, and you found that just talking it out with your wife was very helpful in getting you out of that mindset. Have you worked on preventative strategies to implement in the future?
Barksdale: Yeah, I’m seeing a therapist twice a week and a psychiatrist once every three weeks. I do yoga, keep a journal, and meditate, and I’m also on antidepressants.
Sometimes antidepressants are known to cause a feeling of ‘numbness’ or loss of motivation. Have you experienced any of these symptoms?
Barksdale: No, I haven’t experienced a loss of motivation. The medication helps with providing a feeling of calmness and helps me not take everything too seriously.
As someone who has experienced childhood trauma as a hurdle — while growing up in inner-city Detroit — how do you separate the child-you from the adult-you so that you can start fresh without the past weighing you down?
Barksdale: I think the best thing is to focus on the now and on taking the proverbial next step and trust that you’re moving in the right direction. You also have to make sure that those things don’t happen to your kids (Barksdale has a daughter and is expecting another child with his wife).
Also, regarding your childhood trauma, you’ve referred to the permanence that it has, almost like tattoos that linger. Have you found it easier to move away from that point in your life?
Barksdale: No, not really. My past is still there and I’m trying to get over it.
My wife and I were talking about heroes in music and my wife said, ‘A lot of the greats have the common denominator of having really messed-up childhoods.’ These days, with the kind of music people are listening to, I think I can [look ahead] and make great music too.
Do you think there’s a chance that depression in professional sports, especially football, might sometimes be tied to head trauma?
Barksdale: I [worked hard] to trace my depression, and realized that it doesn’t come from concussions, it goes back to my childhood. When you talk about depression, the first inclination is to talk about this, but I’ve never had a concussion. Recently, I had a teammate that mentioned how he’s noticing that there’s much fewer mentally plagued people now in the league than there were in the past – so there has been a lot of improvement. While I think it’s still a very important issue, I think some of that is the result of a witch hunt.
The NFL has a 24-hour suicide hotline that apparently receives between 20-30 calls each month. It is perhaps a step in the right direction, but much more can be done to eradicate the fear of coming across as ‘unmasculine’ or weak for confessing to own’s own personal fears and struggles. Yet doing so, as we know, requires greater courage and strength than not – which is a very interesting irony. What would it take to enlighten everyone to this fact?
Barksdale: People are afraid of what they don’t understand. If you develop a cough, you’re nervous and scared because you don’t know how it happened.
A couple of years ago, a former Marine told me that ‘real leaders share their scars.’ People need to come out, be honest, and know that it’s going to be okay. It just comes down to educating and campaigning the cause; and it’s no different than getting people to stop smoking. It’s ultimately about education and making people aware.
I think it’s great that you’ve taken up the guitar, as well as singing, on the suggestion of coach Jeff Fisher. You’ve spoken about the unspoken value and catharsis offered by music – whether it’s writing or performing songs off your album, ‘Butterflies, Rainbows, and Moonbeams.’ Tell me about how it makes you feel to pick up your guitar and do your thing? Is it comforting?
Barksdale: Music is great as it feels like flying and there’s the sensation that you can change directions in the blink of an eye and just be free, which is how I feel when making songs. The best part, though, is playing live for someone that can just come to your concert and feel uplifted. On top of that, music allows me to spread the message of love, compassion, and togetherness.
Are you familiar with the philosophy of stoicism (which focuses on personal ethics and virtue as the path to happiness)?
Barksdale: Yes, I love philosophy. It helps me think through things and it goes hand in hand with the human mind, helps me develop my own philosophical theories, and it assists me as a person – how I think and how I articulate in general in getting across a point, for example.
What is some advice you’ve received or books you’ve read that have guided you through this struggle?
Barksdale: The School of Life (a global educational organization that provides life advice) has been of great help to me, especially one of the books they’ve published called ‘Great Thinkers’ (which touches on Eastern and Western ideas from a compendium of individual sources throughout history).
How about certain songs and artists that you listen to before a game or to just get in a good mood?
Barksdale: (Laughs) I listen to a lot of good music. Before games, I might listen to something by Young Dolph or Gucci Mane. As for music that might just make me feel good, I have a playlist called ‘Inspiration’ on Spotify.
Do you have a favorite song on your album?
Barksdale: My favorite song is the next song. My album is a snapshot of what I’ve done. I’m a better guitar player now, I’ve learned about theory, I’ve written songs, and am creating new things.
Last, but not least, if there is one solution to overcoming the stigma behind mental health, what do you think it could be?
Barksdale: At the end of the day, regardless of what people think, it’s a quality of life decision. Do you want to be miserable every day for the rest of your life? When you look at sports, for example, it’s seventy-percent mental and thirty-percent physical, but we put one-hundred percent in the physical part. You have to focus on the power of the mind and know that it’s not going to be powerful if it’s not healthy. If you have a broken leg, or you have cancer, you go to the doctor and get it treated. Mental illness is the same and hiding from it isn’t going to make it go away.