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From Mental Institution To Paralympic Gold: Deja Young Recounts Her Harrowing Mental Health Journey

By Deja Young, Two-Time Paralympic Track and Field Champion | May 15, 2020, 11:04 a.m. (ET)

Deja Young poses for a photo at the Team USA Tokyo 2020 shoot on Nov. 22, 2019 in West Hollywood, Calif.


Deja Young is a Paralympic track and field sensation who won gold in both the 100- and 200-meter T46 at the Paralympic Games Rio 2016—her Paralympic debut. Young, who was born with brachial plexus that caused nerve damage and limited mobility to her right shoulder, lettered all four years on her high school track team—while also competing in volleyball and softball—before going on to All-Conference at Wichita State University. Young has also earned six world championship medals, including two golds in the 100 and two in the 200. In honor of Mental Health Awareness Month, Young wrote about her mental health journey for TeamUSA.org.

If you or someone you know is experiencing an urgent mental health issue, we encourage you to text HOME to 741741, or call (800) 273-8255 to speak to a trained mental health responder. In the process of helping yourself, you may be inspiring courage in others to seek help as well.


“I can’t do this anymore.”

Those were the words that I spoke before I reached my breaking point. Four years ago, I was just existing. I was just going through the motions because that was what “I was supposed to do.” I was a student-athlete, who was also an athlete in the professional world, and I didn’t know how to balance all of it. From training to studying to competing to traveling to having a social life—I just couldn’t find a happy medium. I used to think that I wasn’t allowed to struggle with mental health because I had everything I could ask for; I felt selfish.

I didn’t want to use resources that I felt that other people needed more than I did. Of course, that was completely false. In hindsight, I wish I would have given myself the chance that I deserved. Unfortunately, I went into a downward spiral. I am grateful today that I am able to share my story to try and help others from traveling too deep into that dark tunnel. Depression is a constant battle within yourself and it feels like it is endless. It also feels like there is no chance of winning. I finally realized that I didn’t have to lose. I realized that I don’t have to let my depression take me away from everyday life.


“Once you choose hope, anything is possible.” –Christopher Reeve

My life has always been extremely busy. It’s always joked that I complain about being too busy but the moment that I’m not busy I freak out. Sometimes it got to the point that I was overwhelmingly busy. As a student-athlete, I had this stigma of I wasn’t allowed to feel overwhelmed or down because—supposedly—I had everything I wanted, and my school was paid for. I always felt guilty for feeling this way because I felt like I didn’t have the right to complain. I always had the thought that I was being selfish because people had it so much worse. 

I was a sophomore in college when things started to feel like they were spiraling. I had just competed in my first world championships and I had missed a lot of school because of it, so I felt like I was no longer in control, and when I spoke out about it I was told that it would go away and I would be fine. It didn’t help that I was in a relationship where everything I felt was invalid and just simply didn’t matter. I felt like I was in this hole I couldn’t get out of. It just felt like I was getting deeper and deeper. It wasn’t until my second semester of my sophomore year that I realized that things were getting worse and I didn’t really know where to turn.

I’m a very happy person and was always known for always smiling. So, I felt like no one was going to see my depression or understand what I was going through. At that point in time, I found that it was really hard for me to reach out. I was really embarrassed and felt like any resource I used somebody else needed it more than me, which is completely false.

2016 was a Paralympic Games year and I could feel the pressure. I had a lot of expectations not just from myself but from everyone around me. In every aspect of my life I felt like I no longer had control; I had given up. Finally, in unfortunate circumstances, it resulted in me being admitted into a mental institution. It was four months before the Games, and I was sitting in a mental institution. I didn’t know where to go from there. My depression had evolved and had taken over my life. After some time there, I realized that there were things that I had to come to terms with.

I had to come to terms with the realization this is something that I am going to have to live with for the rest of my life. I had to come to these terms because I had to realize that it’s okay to not be okay. I had to realize that depression is extremely complicated, and I wasn’t the one who was complicated. Lastly, I had to realize that when glass is broken, when the pieces are big enough, you can put it back together; but when it shatters it can’t be fixed. I realized that even in shattering I could still be put back together.


“Happiness does not depend upon who you are or what you have. It depends solely upon what you think.” –Dale Carnegie

Today I am different because I know the value of my life and that things will get tough. I used to wake up to just exist; today I wake up wanting to fight. I still have my tough days, but I am no longer embarrassed or ashamed to reach out. I still have my days where my anxiety is so bad that I begin to self-isolate. I have days where I just want to lay in bed because I feel worthless. The best thing that I learned is that I have to be patient with myself. I had to take a moment and not get frustrated at how I was feeling. I stopped blaming myself and worked on what I could control. There is always hope. I had to learn to find happiness in the things that I had control in; in reality the only thing I really had control of was my thoughts. I knew that I had control of one thing and I never thought that was possible. The ongoing support that I have now is my very patient therapist and the relationships that I built through my recovery. There is always hope. There’s always a light at the end of the tunnel. Sometimes the light that you need is buried within you.

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Deja Young

Track and Field