Athlete Q&A: University of Vermont ‘19 Standout Ernie Duncan is Not Afraid to Open Up About His Battle with Depression and Suicidal Thoughts

Published by Holly Ruvo

Interviewed by Ben Ruvo

Ernie Duncan, University of Vermont Basketball ’19

Ernie Duncan is a recently graduated Guard from the University of Vermont. The Catamounts had a great season where Duncan led them to an impressive 27-7 record, NCAA Tournament bid and Conference Championship. Originally from Evansville, Indiana, he played alongside his two brothers making them the first trio of siblings ever to compete in the NCAA tournament. His school accolades include 1st in 3PT%, 2nd in career 3 pointers made, 4th in games played, and 10th in career points.

Ben: Can you please give us some insight on your mental health experiences?

Ernie: My mental health struggles really came to my attention in the spring of my junior year. I began to experience panic and anxiety attacks for the first time. Having random moments where I could feel my heart racing for no reason and waking up in the middle of the night with my skin crawling. Those lasted for a few months and then I started to slowly enter this depression state that got worse and worse. It started where I couldn’t really move from my bed to go brush my teeth to trying to figure out ways to commit suicide. My mind and body were occupied the entire day with sadness. I felt that I had a thousand pounds sitting on my shoulders and nothing could get me out of this state. My experience with mental health struggles was the most challenging time in my life. I’ve experienced many injuries to my body such as fractures in bones but this battle with my mental [health], trumps it all. 

Ben: How have your mental health experiences impacted you as a college athlete? 

Ernie: Looking back on my college career, I believe that I battled something mentally my whole career but I never acknowledged it and always pushed it to the side. The biggest problems I had were finding happiness and my self-talk. There were many games in my career that I played well, yet I would go back to my place and be so hard on myself to the point that I had convinced myself that I did not play well which would lead to me being very unhappy during most days. I was in a constant battle with myself more than anything. You already deal with a lot of pressure to perform in the classroom, on the court so for me, my self pressure really pushed me over the edge and eventually boiled over which is why I ended up experiencing some tough times heading into my senior year. 

Ben: Do you believe there is a stigma attached to mental health, particularly in athletics? If so, what do you think could be done to help break that stigma?

Ernie: There is definitely a stigma attached to mental health and with athletes. Top athletes are looked at as really strong people inside and out. Growing up, I thought it was soft to show emotion. What needs to be done is if you’re struggling, talk about it. The more athletes and people in general come out with their struggles, the more everyone will feel comfortable. When I was struggling, I looked to other athletes that had come out with their struggles in hope to find help. Reading about other athletes gave me some comfort and gave me some strength to talk about my own. So I think the best way to break the stigma is to continue having people feel comfortable to talk with others about their own personal battle.

Ben: What do you think schools and coaches could do to address this issue more?

Ernie: I was really fortunate to go to UVM where I had a group of people that supported me in any way possible. I think that every school needs to make sure that their athletes have someone they can talk to at any time and needs to make sure their athletes are comfortable with communicating when things are not going well. So the best way to address this issue more is to make sure athletes have ample resources.

Ben: What kind of advice would you give to student-athletes who are struggling with depression and suicidal thoughts?

Ernie: Some advice I would give someone who is struggling with depression and suicidal thoughts?  Tell someone. It is way easier said than done. When I was going through it, I did not want to talk to a soul. I wanted to stay in my dark room and lie there and look up at the ceiling. I understand that depression is crippling but you have to find a way to tell someone in order to improve. The moment you get what you are struggling with off of your mind, the quicker you will improve and see the light. The longer you wait, the longer you will struggle and the longer you will be in a battle with yourself. Some other advice I would give is to be easier on yourself. You have to understand that it is OK to be struggling and that it is OK to seek help.

Ben: As someone who plays on the same team as my brother, I know how great of an experience it can be. How did having your brothers by your side impact you through your mental health journey? 

Ernie: Having my brothers by my side was great. Hearing your family tell you everything is going to be just fine and having your brothers there to give you a hug when you need it is of course, really positive. There’s nothing like family and I’m really thankful to have spent my senior year with two of my brothers. 

Ben: Why do you think it is tough for men to talk about mental health? What can we do to make men in all aspects of life feel more comfortable talking about their experiences?

Ernie: As I mentioned earlier in this, I was taught that men shouldn’t show weakness. You shouldn’t show emotion such as crying and you should be tough and strong through everything. The idea of that is absurd. There are times to be tough and strong, and there are times that you need to cry and be sad. The idea that men need to be strong 24/7 needs to be thrown out the window. Once our society throws that out, men will begin to feel more comfortable about talking with their experiences. I do feel like it is trending up and everyone needs to make sure it stays that way.

Ben: How were you able to overcome your battles and get in a position where you feel comfortable advocating for athlete mental health?

Ernie: It took me a while to feel comfortable about advocating for athlete mental health. Once I got through the darkness, I wrote down things that I thought one day I could share but deep down thought no way I could share these things. Once the opportunity came up for me to share, I jumped on it because I thought about the positive effects that it could have. I did it because I knew there was someone out there that was struggling like I was and needed to hear my story. As I said earlier, when I was in the dark, I was looking for stories about other athletes, so I wanted to be a story that could connect with a struggling athlete that needed that push to get out of the awful state of depression. 

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