October 10 is World Mental Health Day and as part of the support that GAMMA has for this, we have spoken to MMA star Alexa Conners (@alexa_conners) who has shared her personal story with us, why this day holds such significance for her and what she is doing to help the MMA community.
Conners who comes from Virginia in the USA began her career as an MMA athlete in 2012 and progressed quickly through the amateur ranks before turning professional in 2016. Early on in her life Conners grew up understanding the importance of having a friend in times of need. She moved fifteen times throughout her childhood, and experienced pressures as a standout high school basketball player while growing into her identity as a gay woman.
Following a family and community tragedy in 2015, during which her father, who was suffering from mental illness, killed his fiancé, before taking his own life, she was diagnosed with complex post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and decided to commit to the sport of MMA, going on to earn a professional debut with Invicta Fighting Championships in 2016.
Giving up her full-time job in engineering sales and transitioning to the professional ranks was no easy feat. “It was tough. Understanding that most professionals train just as hard as you and have similar skill sets or better. I was very successful early in my professional career, and this was thanks to my head coach and professional teammates who helped keep me accountable.”
For a lot of athletes, turning professional is the dream and it comes with a new set of challenges. For Alexa, these challenges were made even more difficult. “Honestly, I didn’t realise how messed up I was as a person until the day I lost my dad.” Until more recently, mental health issues were not discussed openly and there was not much support readily available, especially within the fighting community.
“My father battled a mental-health illness his whole life and never got help for it. He never got counselling, and eventually it got the best of him. That, obviously, was a life-changing event for my whole family.”
This motivated Conners to create a mental health non-profit for athletes/combative competitors called In Your Corner. “I thought to myself, why not build a community of athletes who can fight the good fight together? Mental health needs to be talked about more. It is just as important as our physical health. We all have something we can relate to when it comes to mental health. If we are not ready mentally during training camp or competitions, then we are already beaten. It is important to understand a healthier mind leads to a successful and healthy life.”
Conners is using her personal experience and her MMA community to help spread awareness and to offer help to people. “By no means do I claim to have my mental health solved or healed but I’m here to help the ones who feel alone, just like my dad, and some days like me. I’m here. And we are here, to be in your corner. We have some great resources in the works and building a community of athletes who get it. Let’s plan the next round. Let’s be there when no one else is.”
With her traumatic background and her commitment to help others, Conners is an inspiration. She is very passionate about mental health and is willing to share her story, especially if it can help other athletes. “Do not give up. Fight for yourself. I promise there is a community of combat athletes who get it. There are other people who feel the same way that you do. You are no longer fighting alone.”
After taking a short career break to set up the foundation and to focus on her own mental health and well-being, Conners will return to the ring next month on 5th November in Charleston, South Carolina.
If you, or anyone around you is suffering with mental health issue and you would like to speak to someone, feel free to visit iycorner.org or contact GAMMA and we will connect you.
For more information on World Mental Health Day visit the WHO.