Celebrating Life: An Interview with James Donaldson, NAMI Seattle Board Member

Celebrating Life: An Interview with James Donaldson, NAMI Seattle Board Member

By Fatima Al-Mahana, PrinseLena Pendergrass, Monica Bao, Sheldon Lin, Nicole Liew, Nick McMurray, Ibrahim Mushtaq, Martin Le Van, and Kevin Wang

Image of James Donaldson, a middle-aged Black man, smiling in front of a gray backdrop. He is wearing a gray suit and red tie.
Photo courtesy of James Donaldson.

“Around Thanksgiving, I was really having trouble sleeping through the night. I didn’t want to face things. When I’d wake up in the middle of the night, I’d have a lot of dark, scary, negative thoughts,” James Donaldson said to us as he related his journey through clinical depression.

Donaldson, a towering man over 7 feet tall, has a list of accomplishments that many aspiring athletes can only dream of. He is not the sort of person we initially expected to have a diagnosis of depression. A former NBA all-star, he played for the NBA for fourteen years before establishing a physical therapy clinic. However, despite Donaldson’s many successes, he also encountered many setbacks that led to his depression diagnosis.

Donaldson told us that in 2015, he had emergency major open-heart surgery, which put him in a coma for two weeks and had him bedridden for most of the year. While he was recovering, Donaldson’s mother passed away and his wife left him. At the same time, the physical therapy clinic Donaldson founded encountered financial difficulties because he was unable to work during his physical recovery. Donaldson soon hit his breaking point and fell into a dark state of depression. He struggled with suicidal thoughts and feelings of hopelessness.

Donaldson then decided to reach out for help. He spoke with a therapist who diagnosed him with depression, anxiety, and suicidal ideation. The therapist advised him on the steps to take to the road to recovery and prescribed him medication. Some of the toughest thoughts to shake during this dark time were those of suicide.

We were fortunate enough to conduct a student-led interview with James Donaldson. During the interview, he recalled the events in his life, discussed what helped his recovery the most, provided information on how to help those who struggle with depression, and elaborated on his contributions to the community and how he stays involved.

What was the catalyst to you seeking help?

Donaldson: “One of the young student-athletes at WSU, Tyler Hilinski, was the young quarterback on the Cougar football team, and he took his life on the campus in January 2018. That shook me to my core, I mean I was visibly shaken.” This story moved him and gave him a reason to push forward. Donaldson continues “… I think what really got me is the fact that everybody’s out trying to tell Tyler’s story for him and how wonderful of a kid he was, and I just didn’t want that to happen to me, I wanted to be able to tell my story.”

What would you tell someone who is suffering from mental health issues, but refuses to seek help?

Donaldson: “Well, I’d be right there with them, you know, offering a listening ear. A non-judgmental approach. And just really being able to listen to them and feel where they’re coming from and what they’re going through is probably the best thing you can offer them. If they refuse to get help, continue to offer or reassure them that the help is available.”

I’m just wondering if you ever fall down a rabbit hole even nowadays and if you do what lifts you back up to bounce back?

Donaldson: “I think, initially after those 12 months of darkness every now and then I would have a bad day and I just would not feel good. I feel like I’m slipping back to where I just came out of. But those days started, you know, spreading themselves out further and further apart.”[…] “You have to be patient with yourself. You know, I put in the book [that I wrote on suicide prevention] that sometimes you just have to take a stand, and let people know that, hey, I fought long and hard for this life, and I’m going to take a stand for myself. I’m gonna defend myself.”[…] “It takes a while to get to that point, and then you can go back to your sweet, nice, you know, easy-going self, but you have to continue to create that space, that healthy space around you.”

So often people seek help too late. Is this a societal problem that can be fixed?

Donaldson: “Well, I think it’s getting easier in society to speak up. […] The month of May is mental health awareness month. September is Suicide Prevention Month. These are months where we get a lot of attention out there. I’m really involved with both of these things to really make sure that the word is out there.”

Do you think you’re happy now, and what makes you happy?

Donaldson: “You know, it’s funny because before these difficult times, you know, I had a lot of material things. I had a lot of money in the bank, and a lot of, you know, fame and fortune from my NBA days and all those kinds of things. But, was I truly happy? Nah, I don’t know, I don’t know, you know those material things come and go. Now I realize, after going through what I went through; I have so much more empathy for everyone going through whatever they might be going through. [. . . ] I just really relate to [others with depression] so well now, so I think my happiness level is so much higher now.”

Donaldson smiling and shaking hands with a woman.
(Donaldson at a book-signing event in Seattle, WA. Photo courtesy of James Donaldson.)

James Donaldson is a board member for NAMI Seattle, the founder of Your Gift of Life Foundation, former NBA all-star, and the author of “Celebrating Your Gift of Life”, a suicide prevention awareness book. According to Donaldson, significant influences that really got him through his worst moments of depression were his close-knit friends, his faith, and starting a suicide prevention nonprofit, Your Gift of Life Foundation. Donaldson wants to reach out to and inspire as many people as possible by being an advocate for mental health awareness and suicide prevention.

If you also want to make a difference by becoming an advocate of mental health awareness and suicide prevention, contact NAMI Seattle at info@namiseattle.org. Or, to seek help for yourself or a loved one, reach out to NAMI Seattle’s mental health referral and information Helpline to get connected to the support and resources you need:

Call or Text: (425) 298-5315  

Email:helpline@namiseattle.org

This article is a collaborative piece created by a group of University of Washington Bothell School of Business students from Professor Laura Umetsu’s Business Writing course.

And special thanks to Jasmine Bager for her work coaching students on storytelling. Jasmine writes for a variety of publications, including TIME, Teen Vogue, and Harvard University’s Nieman Foundation of Journalism on issues ranging from women’s rights to art to fashion. See Stories by Jasmine Bager : Contently.

Posted on August 24, 2021
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