University of Missouri

Former Mizzou, NBA player Keyon Dooling: Mental health requires facing 'the ghost'

Keyon Dooling while at Mizzou in 2000.
Keyon Dooling while at Mizzou in 2000.

May is Mental Health Month, and former Missouri guard Keyon Dooling started it by writing an essay for The Players' Tribune titled Running from a Ghost. In the essay, he shares his story of the sexual abuse he suffered as a child, which led to struggles with mental health as an adult.

Dooling now works as a player wellness counselor for the National Basketball Players Association. At the NBPA’s Top 100 camp, he has overseen the Players Program, which provides top high school prospects with advice on difficult life decisions they could face in the future, such as who to surround themselves with as their careers take off.

“My mission is to help people heal,” Dooling told The Star in 2017. “To guide them and help them learn from my experiences so they might not have to go through some of the things I went through, so they can find success without some of the obstacles.”

In the Players’ Tribune essay, Dooling details how, as a 7-year-old, was sexually abused by an older boy, who he knew. Dooling says the experience changed him forever. He says he began carrying a knife inside a handlebar of his bicycle, smoking marijuana by 11 years old and having sex with older girls by age 13 — all of which was an effort, Dooling says, to compensate “for the anxiety and fear that I had to keep suppressed.”

He went on to be a standout for two seasons at Mizzou and played for seven NBA teams across 13 seasons.

Dooling writes in the essay that a man groped him in a steakhouse bathroom, which caused the childhood memories he was suppressing to reemerge.

“I called my mom. I called my wife. We prayed together over the phone. But the feeling wouldn’t go away,” Dooling writes. “Even when I got back home to Boston, I was a complete mess. I became paranoid. I couldn’t eat. I couldn’t sleep. It felt like there was some kind of danger right around the corner, and it was making me sick.”

As a result, near the end of his career, Dooling stepped away from a contract with the Boston Celtics. He saw a doctor at Harvard Medical School, who began to help Dooling recover.

“He explained to me that there was a name for the feeling that I was dealing with,” Dooling writes. “I was actually experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder stemming from my childhood.”

Dooling, 37, shared his story because he believes mental health and sexual abuse are taboo topics in the NBA, as well as the African-American community in general.

“When we have diabetes, we go get treated. When we tear our ACL, we go get surgery. But if our heart is broken, or if our soul is hurting, what do we do?” Dooling writes. “We just internalize it. We become hard. We spend our whole lives running from the ghost. Until one day, it catches up to us. And I can speak from personal experience that all the alcohol and all the women and all the money in the world will not solve the problem.

“The only way to finally escape is to stop running and turn around and face the ghost.”