NBA and Washington State athlete James Donaldson brings mental health awareness to Colton

Nov. 8—COLTON — The Colton High School student body had the opportunity to listen to James Donaldson tell his story about the importance of mental health on Tuesday.

In 2015, the Washington State Athletics hall of famer and former NBA All-Star had open heart surgery. That set off a chain of unfortunate events for the former Cougar. He had to close his physical therapy clinic in Seattle in 2018, he lost the money he saved during his playing career for retirement and his marriage fell apart.

These events led Donaldson to a dark place. In his own words, he lost everything except his life. And it wasn't long before his thoughts turned to taking that away, as well.

"When you get that close to throwing everything you have away, it's a scary place," Donaldson said.

It took Donaldson 12 months to finally work his way out of those dark thoughts and surround himself with people who helped him out of those moments.

Eventually, Donaldson made the decision to tell his story.

It took a while to start the latest chapter of his life due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Once restrictions lessened, he started the next stage of his life.

His decision to become a motivational speaker was also spurred by the struggles of another former Cougar, Tyler Hilinski, who died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound in 2018. Donaldson and Hilinski's family, who started the charity Hilinski's Hope, have become closer due to shared experiences. Hilinski's death helped motivate Donaldson to get better and to make sure that he, instead of his loved ones, is the one around to talk about his experiences.

"Mental health is one of those things — you just can't see it from the outside," Donaldson said. "(Tyler's parents) were with him on a family vacation just days before he took his life. And he looked totally fine, everything was OK. And then it was over. So that's what I want these kids to know — is that this thing we go through is just temporary."

Donaldson goes to schools across Washington and the country and hears the stories of the students he presents to, hoping to help people avoid the thoughts and the mindset that brought him to the darkest point in his life.

When he was finished talking to the Colton student body, he opened up for questions by students. Several shared their stories, their struggles, their negative thoughts and dark points in their life. Some of them are still in those dark places.

Donaldson played professional basketball for 21 years — 14 of them in the NBA. He was born in England, graduated from Sacramento, Calif. and played professionally in Italy, Spain, Greece and America. He's among the top shot-blockers in Seattle SuperSonics history.

With all of that, he says this current chapter of talking about mental health awareness and going school-to-school letting students know that things get better is the most rewarding experience of his life, especially in small-town communities like Colton where extensive resources to mental health are not always available.

"That's when a lot of issues (come up)," Donaldson said. "A lot of these rural communities just don't have the resources to be able to help each and every kid. (Colton) seems like it does and that's great. They have a counselor on staff, that's good. But a lot of these rural areas are kind of tucked out of the way and you don't really hear about things. You never really hear about a child that might take his life in the community. ... So to come out and try to destigmatize all of that, to bring more awareness to all of that, is what I'm trying to do."

In addition to his motivational speaking, Donaldson has a foundation called Your Gift of Life, which offers resources for people to get help for a variety of situations that might lead to decreased mental health and suicidal tendencies. He also has a book called "Celebrating Your Gift of Life," which goes into more detail about his journey. He has talked to over 20 schools and anticipates speaking at least one high school a week for the rest of the school year.

Throughout his presentation, there was one overarching message. After he talked about his journey, Hilinski's journey, the student's journeys, there was one statement he had: "There is hope and there is tomorrow. Hang in there."

Kowatch can be contacted at 208-848-2268, or on Twitter @Teren_Kowatsch.