To any outsider in his Massachusetts high school, star basketball player Chris Herren looked on top of the world, with broken records behind him and a promising career ahead of him. But what many did not know was that beneath his physical prowess was someone struggling with mental health challenges and substance use.

In his return to Heart of the Matter, Chris connects with Elizabeth Vargas about parenting and the importance of focusing on our children’s social and emotional health as students across the nation return to school in the midst of a resurgence of COVID-19. The two also speak about the ripple effect of speaking up and why, as a former pro-athlete in recovery, Chris is inspired by Olympic gymnast Simone Biles’s stand against mental health stigma.

Listen now

Related reading

Episode transcript

Elizabeth Vargas

Chris Herren, welcome back to “Heart of the Matter.”

Chris Herren

It’s great to be back. Thanks for having me.

Elizabeth Vargas

It’s so nice to have you. You were our very first guest on our podcast. So, you were so fantastic, we decided to have you back. How’s that? No pressure. You’ve got to be stupendously amazing.

Chris Herren

And that’s good to hear. But I’m excited. I’m grateful to be back.

Elizabeth Vargas

Yeah. Before we start talking, I wanted to get your take as a former professional basketball player, on Simone Biles and her very public, obviously, discussion about mental health. The impact it had on her stint at the Olympics and what that’s done in terms of changing the parameters about how we speak about mental health and how athletes at the very top of their game may be physically fantastic and psychologically not.

Chris Herren

I think the psychological part is probably the biggest challenge. We’re all pretty gifted when we get to that level. The psychological aspect of it is the most challenging point, whether it’s confidence or self doubt, self-esteem. But she spoke loudly and something that I’m proud of as a person in recovery, who over the last 10 years has worked really hard to kind of change the conversation and the stigma. So, the fact that she felt comfortable enough to announce on the biggest stage that she’s not doing well, I think is a testament to her and to everyone who’s worked so hard at kind of changing the stigma around this.

No father wants his little boy to look up at him and say, “Hey, guess what Dad, I walk around this house like I’m the man. But truth be told, I can’t even sit amongst my friends on a Friday night and just be myself. I don’t even have the confidence. So, it makes me feel a little better about myself when I walk into basements with a buzz on. It allows me to do things I normally wouldn’t.” Parents don’t want to hear that. So, they don’t ask it. See, I think parents hover over you, academically applied pressure to you, athletically but forget you socially. When we need a coach, a teacher the most, or all by ourself in a basement and have no idea what to do with it.

Elizabeth Vargas

You work extensively in the field of recovery, especially with kids, young adults, adolescents, you speak constantly all over the country to kids about this issue. What impact do you think Simone Biles coming out and talking about this, she’s 24, she’s young, she’s in that age group. What impact do you think that’ll have?

Chris Herren

I think it kind of, it disarms a lot of people from saying like, “Suck it up. Get through it, suck it up.” The fact that she walked away from the Olympics, I mean, it’s just… And I have so much respect for those sports. It’s every four years. And it’s not like in NBA, NFL, Major League Baseball, there’s a game tomorrow. I mean, this is her World Series. This is her Superbowl. And it only comes every four years. And the fact that she said, “I’m not feeling well enough,” it’s extremely brave. So I’m proud of the moment that she shared with everyone. And I’m proud of her as a young woman who stood up for herself and let everybody know that, as successful, as talented as she is, she needed to step back.

Elizabeth Vargas

The heroic act that she committed here was that, what you just said, as successful and as talented as she is, she’s the best gymnast ever in the history of the sport, according to every expert, and that she would step back from… Let’s be honest, gymnastics isn’t like basketball where you get to go to the NBA and all the other European leagues or all the different leagues and different ways to continue to play and compete and earn a great living. I mean, gymnastics, that’s it. After you retire from gymnastics, there is no professional gymnastics, league ,that sort of thing. And the fact that she would stand up and say, I need to take care of myself at a time when we know statistically, and we’re going to get to this in a second, there are so many people who are suffering with anxiety, with depression and not just in this country, in the world. That’s a result of the pandemic. To stand up for yourself and say, “I can’t do this right now. It’s dangerous for me to do this. I need to take care of myself.” is a huge thing.

Chris Herren

And I think she stood up for so many others. I think that’s the beauty of it. I don’t think she’ll ever realize the ripple effect that she’s going to have in people’s lives where they’re going to intervene earlier. They’re not going to push themselves to the limit and to the breaking point. That they’re going to respect how they feel and they’re going to take a step back and make sure they feel better. This was her opportunity to kind of cash in, I mean, it really is. It’s the Olympics.

Elizabeth Vargas

She could have gone home with six golds and been on the covers of all the Wheaties boxes yet again, and…

Chris Herren

Absolutely. And she didn’t. And it just speaks volumes. And I think it’s going to save a lot of people’s lives. I think it’s going to help families. And I think the ripple effect is going to be tremendous. And just, one more person speaking up and breaking down the stigma and making people comfortable to speak out, to say it out loud. I mean, it’s going to go on for a long time that the positive influence that that will have.

Elizabeth Vargas

We know that, of any demographic that young adults, 18 to 24, are the most impacted. Why do you think we’ve seen in that particular demographic, the highest jump in substance use disorder during the pandemic of any other? You mentioned the moms and the dads and the middle-aged, I mean, everybody’s struggling, let’s be honest. We do know statistically from all the evidence and research that everybody is dealing with increased levels of anxiety and depression. Why is the 18 to 24 year old group seeing the highest level of substance use disorder to deal with that?

Chris Herren

I think they lost structure in their life. Like my daughter, she’s a freshman at Providence College and she’s never sat in a classroom yet. She’s going into her sophomore year, she’s never been in class. So just losing that contact, that connection with people and meeting new people and not having the opportunity to get out and express yourself, and lean on others. So that time, and let’s be honest, right? I think 18 to 24, the parents have eyes on them now. They’re home and it’s glaring. I get the calls from parents who say, “I’ve been with my son for a year now, and I had no idea how much he struggled.” And if it wasn’t for the pandemic, that child would be away at college. So I think that also plays a part in it.

Elizabeth Vargas

We already knew, even before the pandemic, there was a cover story on Time magazine saying the kids are not okay, basically talking about increased rates of anxiety, depression, suicidal ideation, among young adults and teenagers. And then you had the pandemic and you completely stripped this generation from structure that they are used to, a routine of going to school, doing homework, going to afterschool sports, that sort of thing, increased exponentially the isolation. You’re not allowed to go hang out with your friends. You can’t go there. You can’t go there. Everything is closed. What is it about this particular group of people in this age group? In other words, they already were… There was already lots of warning lights flashing that we need to do something to help our adolescents. Obviously the impact of the pandemic layered on top of that has led to a huge crisis. What can we, as parents, as society, as you yourself in recovery and running wellness centers and recovery centers, what can we do to help our kids?

Chris Herren

Well, I think it’s moments like Simone Biles shared. It’s glaring. People are talking about it. Kids are not afraid to share that they’re struggling. Unfortunately, there’s nothing there to catch them. And we’re not equipping our children with the tools and some of the structure around mental health and education. So kids are waking up at 18, 22, 24 years old, and they just don’t know where to turn. And so sadly, people are talking about it. I mean, it’s great that people are talking about it, but where’s the support once they reach out for help? And that’s where we have to get better.

Elizabeth Vargas

You go around the country, speaking to auditoriums and gymnasiums full of teenagers about your own story, about how from the outside, looking in, you were the kid in high school who had it all. You were the star basketball player, famous in the newspapers already as a teenager still in high school, for your basketball skills and prowess on the court. You were handsome. You had it all going for you. And yet you were the kid who had to drink a lot of alcohol in order to just walk in the door of that party. Talk a little bit about what you tell these kids about that hidden anxiety, and that anybody can have it. Even the people who look like, from the outside looking in, they’ve got it all.

Chris Herren

For me, and I’ve changed my presentation over the years, right? Because I think it’s really hard to present my drug addiction and where it took me to a 14 and 15 year old. It’s hard for them to identify, but me changing my presentation and talking about the first day and the feelings behind it, and where I was at, and how I felt the first time I drank alcohol, or walked into my first high school party, and the lack of self-esteem and self-worth and fear, that’s what they can relate to. That’s why the presentation I feel, has impacted so many because it speaks to them, and the current situation that they’re in. I tell them I scored thousands of points in high school.

I was ranked in the top 20 players in the country, and I was writing a book about me, and my dad was a politician, and we owned a few homes, and I was in the newspaper every day. But I couldn’t hang out with 10 kids, I’ve known my whole life without getting drunk. And that’s tragic and it’s sad. And I think my mom, who passed away from cancer at a very young age, I think as a parent, people would look at my mom and dad and say, “Wow, like you guys did a good job. Your son’s really driven and successful.” But there was a whole missing piece that I didn’t have and I wasn’t healthy.

And I when I go and speak to colleges, and college football teams and basketball teams, I tell them to be a pro at being themselves. Be a pro at being you. That’s so special. People don’t seek that, they think that it’s just going to happen and it takes a lot of work to be comfortable with the person you look at in the mirror, and the person you walk around as every day. And that’s a challenge in my life today in recovery. You know, I probably struggle with that more than I struggle with the urge of drinking alcohol.

Elizabeth Vargas

Struggle with what? Looking at what?

Chris Herren

Your mental health and your self worth, and your self esteem. Those are all, for me, the character defects that I’ve had that bring me back to the drugs and alcohol. So unfortunately, parents when they catch their kids drinking for the first time, it’s who were you with? Where were you? What friends? How much did you do… and they don’t ask them why. They never ask why. And that’s the thing with me and my children, I’m fortunate, my son and my daughter, 22 and 19, they’ve never drank. My 12 year old, if I catch him, we’re going to talk about why. And I think that’s the most important piece that’s missing.

Elizabeth Vargas

What was the answer to the why for you? When you described that that kid who’s in the newspaper every day, who’s got somebody already writing a book about him, with parents who love him and are successful, and there’s no economic insecurity, there’s no food insecurity, you’re not worrying about any of that stuff. So why did you have to get drunk before you even walked into a party with your friends?

Chris Herren

My father’s alcoholism was kind of like the hidden… That was like the giant, that we were keeping in the house.

Elizabeth Vargas

The elephant in the room.

Chris Herren

Big time. And that as a child and not knowing what parent was going to walk through the door that night. Is it open shirt, crooked tie, loose tie, no spot coat. All those signs that you grow up and you’re aware of. That’s not easy. And my father’s alcoholism had great impact and it still does. My dad’s very sick. And I wish I could give him a little bit of what I have today. And his alcoholism has impacted us for as long as I can remember. So I think that played a part in it. I think obviously, as I grew up and became more aware of my basketball ability, that the pressure and the stress that was attached to that, was extremely difficult for me to manage. And again, I didn’t have Simone Biles to say, I need to step away for a couple of weeks and-

Elizabeth Vargas

And talk to somebody and figure this out, and get my head in the right space.

Chris Herren

But when you think about it, I mean, I travel all across the country, and not just high schools, and not middle schools, but with big time college athletics. And you walk in and they give you a tour and everything is focused on the physical, right? Here’s the weight room, here’s the study hall, here’s the court, here’s the field, but very little work done internally. And I think as we get better at this, I think parents, educators, I think we have to start challenging our kids’ social and emotional health.

Elizabeth Vargas

When you were playing for the Boston Celtics, you tell a searing story about going outside the arena to score some drugs, like five minutes before tip off, and you were supposed to be on the court at tip-off, because you needed the drugs to play. You told that story when you were first on the podcast. And I was so amazed, not only that, first of all, that you were able to play and compete at the level you did with the addiction that you were also suffering from. But that nobody else noticed. Didn’t somebody say, “Hey, Chris, where are you going five minutes before tip off?” Did they notice that you were having withdrawal from the opiates before. And then all of a sudden you weren’t, because you disappeared five minutes before tip off.

Chris Herren

In 1999, it wasn’t in the headlines, right? I remember when I overdosed for the first time in 2004. People were just horrified and it was not on the front page of newspapers that we’re in the middle of an opioid crisis, like we are today. So people really weren’t paying much attention to it. Oxycontin, it just grabbed a hold of me. And my tolerance increased in 1,600 milligrams a day. And the money… And I couldn’t play without it. And I was going to figure out a way to deflect, and take the attention that possibly was on me and create something different. So they would get away from it.

I don’t want to sound where I’m placing blame, but I wasn’t a key figure in the NBA. I wasn’t one of the main guys. So I was a guy that played sparingly, sat on the bench, backed people up. So I was expendable, and the average career for guys like me I believe is like three years in the NBA. So not that they didn’t care, they didn’t notice. I wasn’t in their focus. But people who suffer from addiction or alcoholism can really identify with that level of desperation. And running out to get it because you couldn’t without it. And that’s something that I’ve shared on purpose because it was a very low moment in my life, but allowing people to identify with it.

Elizabeth Vargas

We are doing this as school starts up yet again. We know that drug overdoses in this country are up 30% in the last year, largely driven by the pandemic. We know that 18 to 24 year olds are the segment of the population suffering most when it comes to medicating, self-medicating, through anxiety and depression. It’s a very uncertain year. We have the CDC saying kids should be wearing masks all the time in school. We have local and state governments fighting that. The rules are disparate. It’s stressful. Parents are outraged and angry about whatever set of rules might be there. What in your mind is ringing alarm bells about mental health and our kids, as they head back into the classrooms this fall?

After the last year they’ve had, in the middle of this political, hysterical, confrontational cauldron, with the adults behaving badly, to be honest. Nobody’s talking about this in a respectful way. Like I respect you might have a vulnerable family member or children too young to be vaccinated and want people to wear masks and you feel it’s a violation of your civil rights. I don’t know. It’s a tough time to be a human being right now on this planet.

Chris Herren

Yeah, it is. I mean I jumped out of the car today in DC to fly home, and I forgot my mask. And I was in a panic. How am I going to get in the airport without a mask? And I had to borrow one from someone who was coming in. But shame on our educators, shame on the people in this country that have the opportunity to have our children captive, and hopefully, there are school districts, and states, and counties that are preparing for what this is going to look like for our children. And the adjustment of coming back into the classroom. The adjustment of wearing a mask all day long, the adjustment of being quarantined for 14 days. I mean, my son was quarantined five or six times in college last year. And you’re asking a 20 year old kid to be locked in his room for 14 days, five different times, something’s going to go wrong.

Elizabeth Vargas

Yeah, my nephew went to UC Boulder and spent most of his freshman year doing Zoom classes in his dorm room. I mean, these kids has been very tough.

Chris Herren

Yes, extremely tough. And I found myself as a parent flying out on a Friday and taking the red-eye home Sunday. Just because I was so concerned about how he was adjusting to this. But there’s a lot of people that don’t have a parent on a red eye or can jump out and support them. There’s a lot of kids doing this by themselves. And like you said, there’s a lot of homes that are just out of whack, off balance. Parents are struggling, children are struggling and hopefully that age group, you say 18 to 24, I’m focused too on the elementary, the middle school, the high school kids who have to make this adjustment and come back.

Elizabeth Vargas

Well, because by the way, most substance use begins in middle school. It doesn’t start 18 to 24. It starts much earlier. Yours did.

Chris Herren

Yeah, mine did. And most! I think when we identify the first day, most of us are starting at the young teenage years. And I think they’re going to have their hands full. And when you look at it, right? So I speak at a lot of schools where it’s like 800 students, 600 students per guidance counselor. Come on. You’re putting 600 children on one guidance counselor. And that’s a shame. It shows you how much we’ve invested in our children’s mental health, and it’s unfortunate. So I’m sure there’re schools that will prepare them, I’m sure there’re schools that wont. And hopefully if we continue to talk about this, we’ll continue to put their pressure on the people in the right place that are going to have to recognize this input, and put the necessary structure in place to support our children.

Elizabeth Vargas

You have done such a remarkable job connecting with the kids that you go all around the country to talk to. And by the way, I recommend that everybody watched the documentary “First Day.” That shows a lot of Chris speaking to these kids and really shows how the powerful impact your words have on those kids. What are the three things you would tell any high school kid right now – middle school kid, high school kid, college aged kid – getting ready to go back in a year that has been incredibly stressful. And that unbelievably continues to be very stressful. What would you tell them about handling the anxiety, the depression, the loneliness, the loss of structure, all of that.

Chris Herren

I think, just like I tell people in my wellness center, I think everyone deserves a starting five. Everyone deserves to surround themselves with four other people in their life that’s going to lift them when they can’t lift themselves, That are going to show up when you’re struggling to show up.

Elizabeth Vargas

How do you find that starting five?

Chris Herren

And that’s what I would say. I would say to kids, find the people in your life who are supportive, who are non-judgmental. Find someone in your school who you can trust and you can count on. And don’t be afraid to be courageous, right? Do not be afraid to be courageous and speak up and talk about struggle. I think in our struggle, there’s a lot of strength, and, I can identify with that. But again the way our school system is set up, the education of our children from kindergarten to senior year, there’s so little focus around creating a healthy mind and a healthy body, and challenging our children socially and emotionally. And they’re going to have to pivot, going into this year, and hopefully they have someone in their life that they can trust and they can talk to.

I’ve been sober for almost nine years. There has not been one day I woke up wanting to smoke or drink, take a pill, or shoot dope. Except the days I just don’t feel good being me. It’s been that from day one. The battle’s always been right here. Drugs and alcohol came second, not being me. It always came first.

Elizabeth Vargas

I’m struck by how many kids get very emotional when you speak to them in these big groups. And there’s obviously the handful where it resonates, like they’re a child in crisis and you can see them dissolve into tears. But there’s also a lot of people, a lot of kids in that audience, who get very emotional when you talk about recognizing another kid’s struggle. When you talk about empathizing with another kid who might look different or act different. When you talk about what it’s like for them, and for just a second, walk in their shoes and think about how your actions impact them.

Chris Herren

And that’s why I lead off my presentations with talking about self-harm. And I think that’s something that kids… When I first started speaking 10 years ago, people are afraid to talk about that. And now it-

Elizabeth Vargas

About cutting themselves.

Chris Herren

Yeah. Self-harm. I lead with that because I think a lot of kids see me… Oh we got a former NBA basketball player coming in, and he’s just here to talk to the jocks, to the athletes. And when I lead with that, I’d see a lot of kids sit up and say, “Wait a second, this assembly’s kind of about me. And now he’s talking, talking about something that I can relate to.” Oftentimes I walk into schools and it’s the mom or dad that kids are crying over or the older brother or sister that they’re emotional about.

Or like you said, a friend who they know who’s struggling and they don’t know how to address it. I mean, kids we’ve created this secrecy and stigma around mental health and addiction where if a child hears a friend talking about how sad they are, how depressed they are, they’re afraid to go tell someone. They’re going to keep the secret for them. So those presentations, we receive so much feedback on what that presentation spoke to. And oftentimes they’re relating to a friend, they’re relating to a family member, or a brother or sister who’s struggling.

Elizabeth Vargas

Finally, what will you tell the parents? What can we as parents do? Or what should we not do? What can we say? Or what should we not say?

Chris Herren

I think parents need to have the hard conversations early. There’s a lot of parents that sit back and just hope and pray nothing goes wrong, instead of talking about what could possibly go wrong. And that’s why I say ask them why. Who cares with who, how much, where it happened. Talk about why-

Elizabeth Vargas

Now you got it. Yeah.

Chris Herren

… Talk about why it’s happening. Challenge their self esteem, challenge their self-worth. You can bring them home after school and check their emails for homework, and what’s their GPA, and how are they doing on their SATs. But parents don’t look at their kids and say, “How’s your self esteem? How are you feeling? What do you see when you look in the mirror?” And those are the tough conversations that parents often shy away from. And parents kind of have hijacked weekends, right? They disappear on Fridays after a long, hard week. And they forget when their kids need them the most. On a Saturday night, when their daughter doesn’t feel pretty enough, good enough, healthy enough, Mom and Dad need to be there to lift her or him. So, I would continue to challenge and ask why and have the tough conversations with them.

Elizabeth Vargas

It’s going to be an interesting year. And I only hope that we can somehow turn the tide on these frightening statistics when it comes to anxiety and depression and substance use disorder, and people trying to self-medicate. Gosh, I tell my kids all the time, you drink over a problem, you get sober, the problem is still there, but now you’re hung over. It’s just like, it doesn’t help.

Chris Herren

Yeah. It’s not going away. And I think we’ve done a good job. I think we’re working toward that. As I said in the intro in the beginning, whoever’s worked on mental health and breaking the stigma, Simone Biles stood up and was comfortable to stand up because of you, and because of your bravery and your work, and that’s special. And it shows how far we’ve come. We still have a lot of work to do, but it shows how far we’ve come, and I’m proud to be part of it. And I think we continue to talk about it and have conversations like this. I’ll be in Texas this coming week and traveling all over the country in front of children. And I’ll continue to drive that point home that their self esteem, their self-worth, their mental health is just as important as anything that they’re going to deal with in their childhood.

Elizabeth Vargas

Chris Herren, thank you so much for all your work you do through your speaking, through your wellness center, through your foundation, everything. It’s an important message and you’re targeting a segment of our population that is extremely vulnerable right now.

Chris Herren

It’s great to see you. And thank you for having me.

Elizabeth Vargas

Great to see you. Thank you so much.

Chris Herren

Take care.

Elizabeth Vargas

You too. Thank you.

Chris Herren

You’re welcome.

Elizabeth Vargas

Thank you so much for listening today to “Heart of the Matter.” You can find this podcast on apple podcasts, Spotify, and on our website, at drugfree.org/podcast. And as a reminder, if you need help with a loved one who is struggling with substance use, you can text 55753 or visit drugfree.org. We’ll talk to you soon.

Contact us

Please use the form below to contact us with any questions or feedback related to Heart of the Matter.