November-December 2021

Changing goals

A talented soccer player, Justin Bobb suffered a nightmarish descent into anxiety, depression and OCD as a teenager. Now he’s learning to cope and crusading to end the stigma.

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Photo by Lindsey Max

It was April 2019, and senior Justin Bobb was standing alone at the front of a classroom at Walter Johnson High School in Bethesda. His school was hosting a health and wellness day instead of regular classes, and Justin had volunteered to speak about mental health—his own.

“I am going to reveal a side of me that almost nobody knows about,” he told the group of about 25 students, plus his mom and one of his sisters.

In middle school, he’d been an outgoing guy with friends, a passion for soccer and a 3.0 GPA. Yet, he told the group, from eighth grade until he was a junior, he’d barely slept at night—his mind raced with thoughts that he was a bad person, that he couldn’t do anything right, that life wasn’t worth living.

“It constantly felt as though I was trapped in the dark with absolutely no way of getting out,” he recounted.
He abandoned his friends and the game he loved. His freshman GPA plummeted to 1.0.

Justin opened up about his depression, social anxiety, learning differences, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)—and the support he received to manage them. A few times, he choked up.

Months earlier, when he decided to share his story, he hoped it might encourage peers who were experiencing depression to seek help—and not feel shame. He also hoped it would inspire empathy toward anyone with mental health challenges.

When he finished, many students were wiping away tears. Friends from years past hugged him. Some told Justin they’d often wondered why he’d drifted away—and apologized for not trying harder to find out. And kids started asking questions. What are the signs that you have depression? What’s the difference between anxiety and a bad case of nerves? Who do you talk to?

For a portrait with his Uncut Madison essay, Justin wanted to appear in regular clothes, not his soccer uniform. Courtesy photo

Today, Justin is a 20-year-old junior studying special education at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and an outspoken advocate for mental health in teens and young adults. He has shared his story on public platforms, and those around him say it has reached thousands, giving many the courage to come forward with their stories, too. “Something that he really feels is his passion,” says his mother, Beth Bobb, is “to destigmatize mental health and make people more aware.”

For more than a decade, mental health issues, particularly depression, have been increasing among young people.

According to the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, the average annual percentage of Marylanders ages 12 to 17 who experienced a major depressive episode spiked from just over 7% for the period of 2004-2008 to more than 13% during the period of 2013-2017.

Suicide rates for people ages 10 to 24 climbed 56% from 2007 to 2017, according to the National Center for Health Statistics. Suicide is consistently among the top causes of death in people ages 15 to 24, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Dr. Dominique Foulkes, medical director of the Shaw Family Pediatric Emergency Center at Suburban Hospital, saw the wave in real time: She describes a nearly 300% jump in the number of children and adolescents brought into the emergency room with mental health emergencies over the course of one month, from October to November 2014. Those numbers have since plateaued at 200% over pre-October 2014 levels.

“It was like a faucet opened,” she says.

Foulkes says the reason remains unclear, but academic pressure, cellphone use and social media have likely played an outsize role.

“There’s a lot of pressure on kids, especially in this area, to have a certain level of success,” Foulkes says, “…and they’re not developmentally equipped to deal with it.”

Interviewing former UW rower Eden Rane for an Uncut Madison video series. Courtesy photo

Matt Ney, Justin’s Bethesda Soccer Club coach, will never forget the practice in the fall of 2015 when Justin came over to him, nearly in tears, and said he had to leave. “I thought: What did I say? What did I do?” Ney says.

He had coached Justin on and off from the time he was 10, and knew him as an energetic, “ultracompetitive” player who cared about his teammates.

Hours later, Ney called the family to check on him. No one had any answers, but over the ensuing weeks, Ney saw an “incremental pullback.” Justin started missing practices. When he was on the field, he “started questioning himself more, which never happens, especially with a player of his caliber,” Ney says.

Justin’s team “won 99% of their games,” the coach says, and many of Justin’s teammates were on track to play Division I soccer in college. Justin dropped the sport altogether. Over the next 18 months, Ney visited Justin and his parents at their Rockville home several times. “It looked like he was comatose—there was no life in his face…it was tough to see.”

The year before, as Justin started eighth grade, his parents had seen him becoming withdrawn and depressed. He’d lost his motivation and his passion for everything important to him. They had begun taking Justin, the second of their four children, to therapists, hoping to find one he liked. Twice over the next year, they took him to the ER because he was talking about suicide. Two psychiatrists diagnosed him with anxiety and depression and prescribed medications. But Justin’s decline continued.

“He was this really vibrant, popular athlete…and all of a sudden he kind of disappeared,” says his mom. “We were trying to help and find the right people to help.”

At the start of ninth grade, his parents could barely get him to go to school. Beth recalls the morning her husband, Daryle, brought a leaf blower up to Justin’s room to try to roust him out of bed. “I was part laughing at the moment…which is why I got up,” Justin recalls.

Neither of his parents had mental illness in their families. “They were pretty much learning at the same time I was,” he says. “They were doing everything they possibly could.”

Late one night in ninth grade, Justin ran into his parents’ bedroom crying and soaked in sweat. “I can’t do it! I can’t do it!” he screamed. He was convinced that the only option was suicide, but he couldn’t bring himself to do it, he told his parents. They took him in their arms and held him all night.

Later he wrote that the only thing that had stopped him from attempting suicide was that “I could not leave my family. It would hurt them too much.”

The first time Justin visited Dr. Lance Clawson, in February 2016, he plopped himself “like a lump” on the couch, the Bethesda psychiatrist recalls. When Clawson asked, “What’s going on?” he barely got a shrug. But soon Justin started talking. Looking back, Justin says Clawson saved his life.

Previously, Justin “hadn’t been diagnosed with his ADHD, he hadn’t been diagnosed with his learning disability, no one realized that he had social anxiety…and obsessive-compulsive disorder,” Clawson says. “[Justin] had done everything he could to compensate, but everyone thought he was this sweet, hardworking kid who’s then melting down, and they couldn’t figure out why.”

Clawson prescribed new medications and referred Justin to a therapist specializing in OCD, which often manifests as a need for everything to be perfect. “On the field, if he made what was perceived to be the tiniest error, the OCD would be crippling,” Clawson says. “It’s this inner voice telling you: You blew it. …That becomes, like, super painful to the point where people just can’t function.”

Justin’s therapist gave him assignments to help him “resist the OCD little bit by little bit,” Clawson says. “The more [that he was] able to tolerate the accompanying anxiety…the more the intrusive thoughts and ideas [started] to lessen.”

That meant practicing kicking the soccer ball with whichever foot felt wrong at the time, or turning in homework without erasing words over and over to make every letter just right.

Justin says he was feeling “a resurgence of hope” by the middle of his junior year. He’d gotten academic accommodations, reunited with his two best friends and rejoined his club soccer team, mostly participating in practices.

He also began thinking about sharing his story. For him, it was a way to show the world that it was OK to be imperfect. It would lift the burden of secrecy. And he knew that going public might help others realize they weren’t alone.

After playing and thinking about soccer “24/7” his first two years at the University of Wisconsin, Justin decided this year to quit the team. Courtesy photo

By fall 2019, Justin had settled in as a freshman at the University of Wisconsin. He had missed the recruiting season but was offered a walk-on spot on the Division I varsity soccer team and played starting defender in five games that season. And when the Washington Nationals played the Houston Astros in the World Series, Justin had a friendly rivalry going with his roommate, Nick Fetzer, a Houston native. Right after the Nats beat the Astros in Game 7, Justin “immediately came over, gave me a big ol’ hug and said, ‘No hard feelings, man. I love you, and I’m so glad we get to spend these whole four years together,’ ” recalls Nick, who also played on the UW soccer team their freshman year. “That was something super cool for me.”

But by mid-semester, the pressures of “the full-time job” of sports at that level, combined with the adjustment to college, became too much for Justin. Heading to soccer practice one day, he says, “my body was very tense, my body was shaking a bit, and everything was just spiraling.”

When the drills started, his anxiety only got worse. “I went sprinting with my head in my hands” into the bathroom, he says. He was crying uncontrollably and banging his fists on the wall.

Twenty minutes later, athletic trainer Jordan McDermott asked to come in. McDermott had suffered from anxiety when she was in college a decade before and showed Justin what had worked for her. She took his hands in hers and sat with him, both of them practicing deep breathing until he calmed down.

“That moment is what kind of broke the ice,” Justin wrote later. It felt good to know that his coaches, his teammates, even the whole athletic department finally knew “that this is part of who I am.”

After that, McDermott says, other players going through mental health crises would “always talk to Justin because they knew he was going through something similar.”

Nick calls Justin “one of the happiest dudes you’ll ever meet.” But he’s seen his friend troubled, too. One day, Justin asked for the dorm room to himself and locked the door. Standing on the other side, Nick heard whimpering, then sobbing, then screaming and banging on the wall. He walked down the hall to call McDermott, who told him to stay close by and keep reminding Justin he was there. Every few minutes Nick spoke through the door: “J-Bobb—we’re here if you need anything.”

When Nick walked back to the room after his third call to McDermott, the door was unlocked. He walked in and found Justin “in the fetal position right next to his bed just crying,” Nick says. It took about an hour for Justin to recover. Then the friends went out for pizza.

“Whether it’s coaches or teammates or friends or family members…not everybody understands” how to deal with those struggling with mental health challenges, Justin’s mom says. “You kind of have to be lucky to be around people who understand.”

When the pandemic struck, Justin finished his freshman year from home. After returning to Wisconsin in the fall of 2020 he was diagnosed with COVID-19. He took the infection in stride, he says, because of years of practice in overcoming his concern about germs—what’s known as “contamination anxiety.” “You can control what you can control, but you can’t try and control anything further than that,” he says.

But physically the virus was rough—it affected his breathing and stamina, and he was “not quite 100%” by the second semester, when the pandemic-delayed soccer season started up. Still, he played in four games, three as a starter, until he was sidelined with a hamstring injury. At season’s end he was awarded UW’s Eli Stickley “bELIeve” Award, named in memory of a varsity wrestler respected for his courage.

The summer before that sophomore year, Justin had seen a flyer for a new website called Uncut Madison, a safe space for athletes to share their stories—with an emphasis on life off the field. The initiative had started at the University of North Carolina before catching on at the University of Maryland and other campuses.

Justin contacted Uncut Madison co-founder Olivia Hancock. He wanted to post his story as soon as the website launched. “I immediately knew that would be the right fit,” he says. Over several months, he expanded on his high school speech to include his most painful college moments, like his breakdown during practice.

“I feel like these experiences in my life have shaped me into who I am,” he wrote. “I am not ashamed of it, but rather very proud of how I have developed from it.”

Hancock, a marketing major, says she knew Justin’s words were so powerful and poignant that “the second he makes this public, his life is going to change.”

She and Justin spent two months on weekly Zoom calls working out the presentation of his essay. Some days, Justin would say he was anxious—What if my words get misconstrued? What if people don’t care?—but in the next conversation he’d be excited. He never considered turning back.

In March 2021, “My Story. My Purpose.” went live. The editors included a content warning: Anxiety, Depression, Suicide.

On launch day, Uncut Madison’s Instagram post about his story got nearly 9,000 views and 90 shares. The engagement outranks that of the site’s interviews with an NFL player and with UW’s starting quarterback, Hancock says. “Justin’s piece is a reminder that…it’s not so much about the fame or the status of the athlete…but it’s really what people care about.” Months later, when Hancock says she found herself “struggling with some stuff,” Justin was the person she called.

“A lot of athletes around campus took that story in stride and were like, look, this is an issue that maybe we need to look out for in our lives,” Nick says. “[Justin has] helped so many people by being out there about it.”

Shortly after his story was published, the founders of The Hidden Opponent, a nonprofit working to destigmatize mental health issues among student-athletes, reached out. The group has representatives at more than 400 U.S. colleges, according to its advocacy director, Andy Saul, and wanted to post Justin’s story on its website. This fall, Justin became The Hidden Opponent’s UW campus captain. He’s working on getting neon The Hidden Opponent wristbands to pass out on campus to raise awareness of mental health isues.

This past summer, after months of deliberating, he quit the soccer team. “When you are playing at that high a level, you are kind of thinking about it 24/7,” Justin says.

Now he has time to hang out with friends and go hiking. In July, he joined a 100-mile bike ride to support Autism Speaks. “When I’m busy and active and running around, I’m in a good spot; when I’m just sitting around, that’s when I can get into some trouble,” he says.

Mental health challenges “will be with him for the rest of his life,” his mom says. Though there’s no cure, there are “more tools and coping skills to…help on a daily basis.”

Justin is now working with the university’s athletic department to help coaches and staff better understand the psychological issues student-athletes face. And he’s about to start a “microinternship” with the Badger Athletics Clinical & Sport Psychology Department under the supervision of two sports psychologists.

Justin isn’t sure what his eventual career will be, but he knows it will involve mental health advocacy.

On a cloudy afternoon this fall, Justin was sitting at Mickies Dairy Bar in Madison, chatting with a former UW varsity rower. They’d reserved the popular lunch spot to record an episode of an upcoming Uncut Madison video series.

In his khakis and T-shirt, Justin looked relaxed despite the presence of a video crew. He was asking rower Eden Rane about her transition from college to the real world after graduation. Rane asked Justin about his plans and how he felt after going public with his struggles.

He shared with her something that had been bothering him: When someone goes to the dentist, they have no problem saying so, but if they go to their therapist, they usually say they have “an appointment” or make something up. With cameras rolling, he told Rane that he’s trying to use the word “therapist” in conversation, so it starts to feel normal for him and those he’s with. He’s even taking his medications in front of his friends, instead of alone in the bathroom.

“There are hundreds of thousands of deaths a year across the world due to mental health,” Justin said. And if we are going to break the stigma, “something small,” like being open about the help he’s seeking, is “doable.”

Amy Halpern is a journalist who has worked in print and television news. She lives in Potomac.