Imani Boyette speaks up to save lives, lead others to hope and help

WESTWOOD, CA - SEPTEMBER 16: Basketball Player Imani Boyette arrives for the Premiere Of Fox Searchlight Pictures' 'Battle Of The Sexes' at Regency Village Theatre on September 16, 2017 in Westwood, California. (Photo by Greg Doherty/Patrick McMullan via Getty Images)
WESTWOOD, CA - SEPTEMBER 16: Basketball Player Imani Boyette arrives for the Premiere Of Fox Searchlight Pictures' 'Battle Of The Sexes' at Regency Village Theatre on September 16, 2017 in Westwood, California. (Photo by Greg Doherty/Patrick McMullan via Getty Images) /

“Hey, if you’re feeling suicidal — even if I don’t know you — know that I care. Know that lil ole me thinks you’re important and deserve to be here!”

This is the message Imani Boyette of the Atlanta Dream has pinned to her Twitter page.

There was a time when Boyette didn’t want to be here — on the planet, in her life. The things that drove her to such despair were awful, but not having anyone to turn to for support tipped her over the edge.

“Attempting suicide and not succeeding is, like, the worst feeling ever,” Imani Boyette said in an interview with CBS Sports Network.

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“Waking up every day and not wanting to be there,” she continued. “It’s not really something I want people to understand, to be honest. I don’t want [anyone] to know what that pain feels like.”

The 6-foot-7 center became an advocate for mental health causes while a Longhorn at University of Texas-Austin. Wanting to rescue others from the despair she experienced is what drove Boyette to first tell her story.

During an interview with me in July, Boyette said she continues speaking about these issues because, “these are things no one really talks about.”

September is Suicide Prevention Awareness Month, the perfect time to share my interview with Boyette — for whom an immersion in poetry is what tipped off the advocacy.

“I’ve written poetry since I was twelve,” Boyette said. “And when I got to Texas I discovered slam poetry, and just the whole community of poetry and poets. I just started sharing my writing and becoming really involved with that world.”

At the time Boyette was finding her voice as a poet, she also was beginning to face the truth about what she describes as an “abusive childhood.” Soon, facing the abuse she had kept secret — and the effect it had on her mental health — was not enough. She began to tell people about it — in private conversations, yes, but also through her poems.

Her disclosure about being a victim of childhood sexual abuse from ages eight to 12 grabbed a lot of unexpected media attention. What started as a small-market interview on Longhorn Network blew up into a SportsCenter special on ESPN.

“A lot of the stuff my grandma didn’t even know [until] she watched it on TV like the rest of the people,” Boyette said.

Although she admits to feeling fearful before the first interview in which she discussed topics society typically avoids, Boyette said she also recognized, “This is my purpose.”

Going public about struggles that for so long had been private was not necessarily easy or free of discomfort. “Sometimes I regret it because I kind of feel naked when I walk into a room, especially [around] someone that knows my story.”

But that vulnerability is not enough to make Boyette zip her lips. In fact, the opposite is true because very early on people’s responses confirmed the value of her openness and honesty.

Hey, if you’re feeling suicidal — even if I don’t know you — know that I care. Know that lil ole me thinks you’re important and deserve to be here! -Imani Boyette

“The amount of love and [people saying], ‘I went through this too,’ and the mutual experiences that people shared with me,” are the responses that steadied her trust in this path, Boyette said. “People that reached out to me to say, ‘You’re not alone,’ … ‘Thank you so much for speaking about it – thank you so much’.”

In other words, many in this society who are victims of sexual violence or who live with mental illness have craved — whether consciously or unconsciously — honest representations of what it means to be a survivor or live with a mental illness.

Her story

Boyette’s is the type of story that makes people uncomfortable and turn away. It is the kind of story people avoid out of fear. But it also is the kind of story that is all-too-common in this society.

It is the story of a relative she trusted violating that trust. It is the story of a little girl “feeling neglected,” wondering why the adults in her life didn’t notice what was happening to her. It is the story of a girl feeling so alone and incapable of communicating her true feelings with the people in her life, that she came to the conclusion far too many reach: “Well, there’s no reason to be here.”

It is a tale of depression becoming clinical depression, and then suicidal depression. It is the tale of a girl overdosing on pills three times before finishing high school, in attempts to end her life.

Boyette’s is a story that is not easy to tell. Yet, she pushes through vulnerability and keeps talking because when she was going through abuse and depression, she thought she was, “the only one.” As a child, Boyette did not turn on the TV and see people talking about abuse or depression. Like far too many, she felt death was her only way out.

But this is why the quick amplification of her first Longhorn Network interview means so much to her and is immensely important to victims of sexual abuse and those who live with mental illness.

“We were talking about sexual abuse — on national television, on primetime, during SportsCenter,” Boyette said. “That doesn’t happen, and that’s why the problem is so big in America. It’s why mental health is so bad, it’s why sexual abuse is still going rampant. … I have this platform to talk about these things and try to do the most I can while I still have this life.”

Imani on a mission

Boyette is on a mission to rewrite the narrative about what it means to be a survivor and to go on a healing path to rebuild one’s life. The first step, she says, is for mainstream media to do a better job of depicting sexual abuse or rape survivors and people living with mental illness.

“We only show the extremes,” Boyette said. “We show some perfect human who has overcome all their problems, and they’re so happy now and every day is gleeful. Or, we show someone about to jump off the Golden Gate Bridge. We never show the progression, the in-between.”

As with many things in life and human nature, the truth often lies in the middle. Being a survivor or living with a mental illness is no different. But the middle part — the day-to-day effort to get and stay healthy — is what media tends to skip over. But, for Boyette, it is the most important part of one’s story to tell.

“I want you to watch me become who I want to be,” she said. “I want you to see these problems. I want you to see these highs and lows because … we all have these highs and lows. But we’re so scared to show other people, which kind of perpetuates that feeling of loneliness … isolation.”

Showing the progress is so important because progress comes in many forms. If everything doesn’t get better quickly and stay that way, many people become discouraged. But the reality is that healing happens in its own time, although people do the work to foster the conditions for healing to happen — just as a person with a cut cleans the wound, applies antibacterial ointment and covers the wound to foster conditions in which the injury can heal.

Boyette spoke to this eloquently, using her experiences to provide a glimpse into what healing looks like between the all-or-nothing extremes:

"I think one of the hardest things for me was, once I finally got to a place of feeling, like, ‘I’m happy and I’m not suicidal and I am okay from day to day’ … When my depression came back, it felt like such a failure. I felt like all this time I had been getting better and it has just gone down the drain.It was really hard for me to acknowledge … that this is an ongoing process. You don’t just heal overnight. You don’t just magically become better because mental health is an ongoing thing. It’s something you’re going to have to maintain, just like you maintain your physical health. Every day may not be the best day. Sometimes, all I [can] do is get up and brush my teeth, and that’s okay — we’re going to try again tomorrow. And giving myself that little okay, that little permission to not be perfect every day, to not be on Cloud 9 every day, to be who I am in this moment [is important]. You have to be honest with where you’re at and what you need, and [you have to] to ask for help when you need it."


The process of getting and staying healthy is different for everyone. Most professionals taut the effectiveness of therapy or counseling in treating trauma or mental illness. Boyette has said therapy helped her out of her darkest days. But there is lots of work to be done outside of a therapist’s office as well.

For Suicide Prevention Awareness Month, the #MyTipsForMentalHealth hashtag has been trending on Twitter, with those who live with mental illness sharing what works for them to stay healthy mentally. Those who shared parts of their stories and tips for staying healthy — even in just 140 characters or less — should be commended for their courage.

This week, I reached out to Boyette again to see if there are any tips she would like to share with the world.

Here are Imani Boyette’s Tips for Mental Health:

  • Find something that makes you feel authentically yourself.  For Boyette, it is poetry — not basketball, as many would assume.
  • Take time for yourself.  “It’s okay to check out sometimes — vital, even.”
  • Know your warning signs and honor them. “I know when I’m getting low and need to ask for help — and that’s okay.”

Warning signs and risk factors differ for each person. National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) urges those living with mental illness to know the risk factors and warning signs, especially any signs of imminent danger. As Boyette alludes to in her tips, each person has to know his or her own warning signs. Part of healing, therefore, is getting to know one’s own mental illness.

NAMI’s literature on risk factors and warning signs of suicide can be found HERE.

If you are thinking about suicide or concerned about a friend or family member who you think may be suicidal, reach out to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.

Specialized support counselors are available 24/7: