Chamique Holdsclaw: “A Closed Mouth Don’t Get Fed”

Keynote speaker Chamique Holdsclaw shares here experience with depression and suicide on Wednesday, Sept. 28, 2016 as a part of suicide prevention week. Chamique was a NCAA champion, WNBA player, and Olymplian. (Junbo Huang/The Daily Campus) 

Applause filled the room time and time again in the Student Union Theater last night, serving as an appropriate response to Chamique Holdsclaw’s compelling life story. Seats were filled, and it was actually a struggle to get into the event at all, as the outpouring for this tremendous woman made accommodating the audience with space difficult.

Opening this article on the note of applause, which came after her testimony, could seem like an odd place to start. But for Holdsclaw, it seems appropriate, as a new beginning is clearly emerging for her.

It should be noted that Holdsclaw is a true champion. Both on and off the court, she has worked so hard to “ride the wave of life” as she referenced so many times in her speech. She finds comfort in organizing the trials and tribulations of her life into quarters, continuing the trend that basketball seems to interject into her life, even as she is now retired from the sport.

The story begins with her parents, whom she lived with in Queens, NY until she was taken away from them at an early age after their struggles with addiction became insurmountable. Police were involved after they both became apparently either missing or passed out after using various substances.

From here, she and her siblings moved in with their grandmother, who Holdsclaw clarified “didn’t need to take [us] in, but did anyway because she knew it was the right thing to do.”

Holdsclaw had plenty of resentment in her heart, if not for her parents, then at least for her lack of understanding of the situation at hand. Her grandmother was strict, disciplined, and gave her the ultimatum of either going to church or boys and girls club in her free time when she wanted to go out.

This sort of structure was utterly foreign to Holdsclaw, who recalled times where she said she “would have to take money out of [her] mother’s purse when she was passed out, just in order to feed [her] siblings. That was just how things were.”  Again, she states this without animosity towards her parents, but more so with a tone of conviction in her voice, knowing that this was the situation, and doing what was necessary for her family.

Luckily for Holdsclaw, her grandmother’s home was within sight of a basketball court, which she was allowed to attend as her grandmother watched from the window. Basketball quickly became a coping mechanism for her, as well as a passion, that would propel her into the next quarter of her story.

The third quarter takes place at University of Tennessee, where Holdsclaw met what seems to be her guardian angel, in the form of Pat Summit. Pat Summit was her coach at the university, one who helped her find a place at the predominately white campus.

Being from Queens it was already quite the shock to be in such a lackluster environment in terms of diversity, yet what came next was even more of a shock, Holdsclaw assures us. Her father was soon picked up hitchhiking, and sent to a mental institution, after being diagnosed with schizophrenia.

This created a doubt in Holdsclaw’s mind as to her own mental health. As she searched for answers to understand her father’s illness, she ended up coming back with more and more questions about her own sanity. She understood schizophrenia as plainly as “being crazy” due to her personal deficit, as well as the the overall societal lack of knowledge about mental illness at the time.

She continued to confide in her coach above almost everyone else, who suggested that she get some professional help. Even when Holdsclaw’s lack of commitment stunted her progress in these sessions, she always had a strong foundation with her coach and her grandmother, as well as various teammates.

After three national titles at the University of Tennessee, she was drafted into the WNBA to by the Washington Mystics, which begun the fourth quarter of her story. After all the media attention she received, being the first drafted into the league that year, she still wasn’t happy. Her team was not what she thought it would be, and they were losing constantly. This was a pressure she took upon herself once again.

This paired with the passing of her grandmother became too much to bare on her own. From here, she withdrew from her team, isolated herself for days, and began contemplating “how [she] might leave this earth” as she put it.

Once again, coach Summit was there for Holdsclaw. She found a way into her apartment, and got Holdsclaw to a psychiatrist immediately. After two hours, this psychiatrist diagnosed her as suicidal and prescribed her Lithium. It seems a sore subject for Holdsclaw, who doesn’t understand how a medical professional could so easily diagnose someone a psychoactive drug, and allow them to play a major league ball game shortly thereafter.

From here, Holdsclaw saw years of similar ups and downs, further reinforcing the metaphor of the waves, and their ups and downs therein. It seems, that although they are not subsiding, these waves have at least stabilized within the last four years.

After a failed suicide attempt and many more similar mental struggles, one final event involving gunshots fired from Holdsclaw’s weapon, and a long, blurry night of mental lapse on her part, she ended up in jail. After she was released, she took some time to herself to collect herself.

This is where the applause of the audience last night clocks in as Holdsclaw’s new beginning. Never did she think her career would consist of speaking as a mental health advocate, but here she is, in a word to the largely youth crowd.

The response was moving, and the applause was not limited to the theater. Attendees had plenty to say about Holdsclaw’s speech. One audience member recollected of the event “It was interesting to hear how a famous basketball player felt the same as so many others do around the world.” Another student that it was “good to see a strong woman who has struggled with so much speaking about her story” and added that it was especially interesting to hear her open up about “her childhood, where she went years without talking about her struggles.”

This seems to be just the reaction that Holdsclaw was hoping for. She spoke to the younger members of the audience specifically in closing, specifying how they had a special responsibility to advocate for the silent. The basis of this, it seems, is that Holdsclaw recognizes that many victims of mental health issues are not able to open dialogue therefore lose their voice.

That is precisely why this piece is entitled “A Closed Mouth Don’t Get Fed.” These words, uttered by Holdsclaw personally in her closing, struck with a particular degree of urgency. This phrase, which seemingly places the responsibility on those that are silent about their mental issues, took on a very different tone in her address.

In the context of Holdsclaw’s final words, the responsibility was instead continued onto those who are friends, family, and general advocates for those who are mentally ill. It was posed in a manner that made everyone in attendance think back to a time where someone was in need, and whether or not they helped that person.

Referring back to the wave metaphor one final time, there are high and low points that each one of us experiences at times. Some dip lower, some higher, but they are present and prevalent in each of us.

We all know someone great, whether personally, or generally, who has fallen forever in their low points. If these people we look up to can fall, then anyone can.  Holdsclaw encourages not only that each of us ride our own waves, but also that we extend a hand when someone might be consumed by their own wave. After all, one never knows when they might be in need themselves.

Christopher Mueller is a campus correspondent for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at