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UW football players de-stigmatize depression with heart hoodies

Race Porter (left) and Myles Gaskin (right) model the Heart On My Sleeve sweatshirts, which aim to raise awareness of depression and decrease the stigma around mental health. (Photo courtesy of Race Porter and Myles Gaskin)

To his friends, classmates, and teammates, O’Dea High School football player Race Porter seemed to have it all: charisma, popularity, and skill on the gridiron.

But when the games and celebrations were over and he was back in his room, it was a different story.

“All my struggles came when I was completely alone, locked away in my own room,” said Porter, now a University of Washington punter. “And that was why it was so hard — because when I was out and interacting with people, no one could tell, because I put up this front and felt like I had to be the person everyone thought I was.”

The pressure to be happy-go-lucky all the time made the depression even worse because Porter felt guilty about telling anyone what he was going through. What could the football star have to be depressed about?

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“That was the base of my issue because of that mindset and that status that was created with the environment around me,” Porter said on the Dori Monson Show.

Fellow O’Dea football player Myles Gaskin, who roomed with Porter when they were both on the UW football team, noticed his friend shutting himself in his room for extraordinary amount of time.

“Being with Race during that time kind of opened up my eyes to Race’s struggles and opened up my eyes to other people’s struggles,” Gaskin said. “Hey, maybe they’re not showing that they’re down or depressed right now in a group setting, but sometimes you need to dig a little deeper just to make sure that somebody is OK.”

Gaskin, now a running back for the Miami Dolphins, did not immediately approach Porter about depression, but instead started engaging him in regular conversations about what he had done that day and what made him happy.

“One of the biggest issues around mental health is the stigma that once you recognize symptoms or see it in someone, you have to do something right away, and it has to be drastic,” Porter said. “I think that leads kids down the wrong way. Sometimes kids just need a conversation, … they need someone to talk to. And during my darkest times, Myles was that person for me.”

Simply having a friend who cared about him and in whom he could confide made all the difference.

“It started to get better because I felt like I had someone to talk to,” Porter said.

Instead of pressuring Porter to talk about why he was sad, Gaskin said he wanted to give his friend the chance to “be able to talk about anything else” — to forget his problems for a while and focus on what made him feel glad. Sometimes this was just a simple trip to Gasworks Park to enjoy the postcard view of Seattle.

“You realize, ‘This 10-minute excursion, this 10-minute hangout just changed my day,'” Gaskin said.

In time, Porter felt comfortable talking about depression.

“If you can just give somebody your time, I think that shows that someone cares about them,” Gaskin said.  ” … you need to be able to talk to people, because you don’t know what people feel like when they’re alone.”

A campaign to raise awareness of depression

The experience inspired Porter and Gaskin to start the Heart On My Sleeve hoodie campaign. The two football players are selling sweatshirts and T-shirts with images of full and broken hearts in order to generate awareness of depression, raise funds for the National Alliance on Mental Illness, and, perhaps most importantly, erase the stigma around mental health issues.

Porter described the design — a full heart, a half-broken heart, and a full broken heart — as “simplified down to the three different stages your heart goes through.”

“It’s such a simple design, but it means so much more,” he said. “And the phases are really supposed to represent that, on any given day, your heart can feel however it feels. And you should be able to feel confident with that.”

For Porter, the hoodies are a coping mechanism for when times are tough. The sweatshirt reminds everyone that on days when they might feel broken, better days are ahead.

“I want people to be able to throw on their H.O.M.S. hoodie and feel like there are other people out there wearing it that day who are going through stuff too, so that they can be strong and feel like they have a community behind them,” Porter said.

For more information about mental illness, visit the National Institute of Mental Health or Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. If you or a loved one is in crisis, contact the 24-hour National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.

Listen to the Dori Monson Show weekday afternoons from 12-3 p.m. on KIRO Radio, 97.3 FM. Subscribe to the podcast here.

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