Being the all-time leading scorer in NCAA history is a significant accomplishment. So is getting drafted fifth overall to the San Antonio Stars (before they relocated to Las Vegas). But what happens when all those accomplishments come at the cost of your mental health? That’s the question 2022 All-Star Game MVP Kelsey Plum had to ask herself as she set the women’s basketball world on fire.
Plum says that didn’t feel right as she averaged 31.7 points per game on 53 percent shooting from the field and 43 percent from deep, scoring 1,109 points to leave Washington with 3,257 career points.
“In college, people really noticed all the records and accolades and all the stuff broken, but I was really hurting in terms of my identity and trying to figure out who I was as a person at that time,” she says per Rachel Galligan Just Women’s Sports.
Kelsey Plum opened up and shared her story- a story most know very little about. With the intention of helping others struggling with mental health, thank you @Kelseyplum10 for sharing it & allowing me to write it.— Rachel Galligan (@RachGall) July 25, 2022
My latest with @justwsports https://t.co/gX5iwYvouV
Even with that level of success, it’s tough being at the center of women’s basketball news. The pursuit of setting a new NCAA scoring record became a battle all on its own. Off the court, Plum told Galligan that she suffered from anxiety, depression, and heavy suicidal thoughts. She says she was taking antidepressants to get her through the day, and sleeping pills, so she could rest at night.
“It was all people cared about, you know? There was never a, how am I doing? And it’s not anyone’s fault; it’s human nature,” Plum says. “You see something happening like that, and people assume life is great because, you could argue, I probably played one of the best individual years of basketball of all time.”
Even taking her meds was a battle; Plum says she had to switch through different medications to find some mental relief.
“I was living on the edge in terms of just trying to make it through the day. It was brutal,” she says. “I want to be clear that this is not anybody’s fault. Nobody knew I was hurting. I didn’t tell anyone that I was hurting.”
As the season wore on, Mike Neighbors, her head coach at Washington, said he tried to shift the narrative and focus from Plum back to the team. Even with that effort, Plum noted that her “identity felt completely gone” as she pursued the record. To the women’s basketball world, she was “just known as the girl that was going to break the record, and that was it.”
On top of all that, Plum also had to deal with the constant feeling of being on and like she was being watched on-campus. Plum and the Huskies’ coaching staff agreed to do an in-depth documentary about Plum’s senior year that would “pull back the curtain on her history-making season.” The idea eventually became more than what they bargained for as the film’s intent shifted.
“I had TV cameras following me around on campus, I was on ESPN every other week, I had extra security hired because I would get ambushed at games,” Plum says. “For the first time in my life, I was like, Woah, this happened so fast. I don’t even know how to deal with it.”
Plum also felt like her life was on pause because of her exploits. Instead of being able to enjoy her last few months as a college senior, Plum traveled through eight cities in eight days to accept national awards, negotiate professional deals, attend the 2017 Final Four, and walking onto the stage at the 2017 WNBA Draft in New York before promptly picking up her college life and departing for San Antonio.
The constant stress of the season and travel barely left Plum anytime to finish her studies. She had to take off the final quarter of her senior year, eventually earning her degree while she played in Turkey.
“She had no chance to be a college senior,” Neighbors said. “Those are grown adult decisions and interactions, and as much as you want to think you’re grown, you’re not grown at that age.”
Even during the moment when she was drafted and got celebrated for making it to the W, Plum says she was in a “very dark, dark place.” Expectations were high, and Plum’s rookie season got off to a rough start after she rolled her ankle and tried to come back sooner than necessary. The injury was just the cherry on top of a season where the then-Stars lost 14 straight games and finished last in the WNBA with an 8-26 record.
The following two seasons were an improvement for Plum, but not necessarily up to her lofty standards despite starting 80 of her next 86 games and averaging 8.9 points per game through the first three seasons of her career. The numbers didn’t match her reputation as a walking bucket, and it left not only fans questioning Plum’s ability but herself as well.
“You start to realize how much you value other people’s opinions,” Plum says. “When it’s going good, it’s going great, but when it’s going bad, it broke me. People were like, ‘What’s wrong with you? Did you forget how to play basketball? I miss the old Kelsey. I miss the Washington Kelsey.’ It was just absolutely brutal.”
That internal battle also made Plum question who she was and her worth as a person off the court. When the 2019 season rolled around, Plum felt like she could bring her game together as she averaged 15.2 points and 7.8 assists per game on 49.2 percent shooting from the field and 52.9 percent from beyond the arc. Despite her year-by-year improvement, Plum said her mental health struggles persisted.
“I think that you work for something your entire life, thinking that it’s going to bring you that satisfaction, and when you finally get it, you realize it’s the emptiest thing in the world,” she says.
“I just was like, well, what am I even here for? I did everything I was supposed to do, everything everyone told me I should do, and I did it, and I feel like just absolute s—t. I don’t even know who I am; I don’t even know what I like to do, I don’t know anything about my value outside of basketball. I didn’t know anything.”
But some relief came when Plum tore her Achilles over the offseason. The Sixth Woman of the Year felt like she could finally take a deep breath after five years of non-stop basketball. While getting a ride to the hospital, Plum said one of her best friends had a visibly upset look on her face. All Plum could say was, “you know what, it’s going to be OK.”
Plum said she focused on rest and physical therapy post-surgery as the 2020 WNBA season flew by without her. Life slowed down a bit, and Plum said she took the opportunity to focus on her mental health.
She worked with a full-time mental health coach, who encouraged her to meditate and practice gratitude so she could rediscover her spiritual side. She also served on Neighbors’ coaching staff at Arkansas as a graduate assistant. Being on the other side allowed her to view the game from a different perspective and think about impacting the game differently.
“I knew that when I came back to basketball, the skill was there. I was not worried about that,” she says. “It was me just being able to focus on those other areas. It was kind of just getting everything else full circle so, when I came back, I would be better prepared foundationally.”
Just two years later, Plum is coming off a gold-medal run with Team USA as a member of the inaugural Olympic 3×3 tournament in Tokyo. She’s also leading the Aces in scoring with 20.1 points on 41.5 percent shooting from three-point territory. Plum scored 29 points last weekend to clinch the Aces’ playoff spot for the fourth year in a row.
Off the court, Plum says she feels more equipped to handle the attention with her level of play. Plum said she’s now able to enjoy her quiet time. During those moments, she can reflect and refocus on what matters most to her. Plum also said she writes down 10 things she’s grateful for each morning and then visualizes herself succeeding in whatever the day might bring.
“Finally, remember why you started playing. I lost that joy for a couple years, and I think that people saw that. They didn’t mean to say, ‘We miss the Kelsey from Washington.’ They meant to say they miss the creativity and competitiveness and the love of the game. Instead of out there playing scared, or out there playing not to make a mistake, you’ve just got to remember why you started in the first place. I play because I love this game.”
Plum and the Aces return to action on Friday with a road game against the Indiana Fever.