Prior to each game, Erica Gartner always put on her jersey and tied her shoes just like her teammates.

But, if only for a few hours, Gartner also got a break from wearing her mask.

“Basketball was a getaway,” she said. “When you’re playing basketball, you’re not really thinking of anything else. You’re thinking about winning the game.”

When the games ended, the mask returned. And Gartner pretended that everything was OK all over again.

“Having to hide that and really carry that by yourself is a lot. It just gets heavier and heavier,” she said. “Eventually it spills over into different parts of your life: your relationships with friends and family, your schoolwork and, ultimately, how you’re performing in your sports.”

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Gartner has since ditched the mask. The Bemidji State women’s basketball senior instead has let others see behind it: the toll depression and anxiety have taken on her, but also the newfound hope she holds in her eyes.

“I am in a good spot right now, which is a lot to say,” Gartner said. “I feel like I’ve come a long way. That’s really been the last year, where I’ve taken the steps to get help and really self-reflected on where it’s coming from and how I’m going to deal with this.”

She’s flipped a burden into a cause, advocating for mental health and the outside support necessary for healing.

“Not only with student-athletes, but just people in general, (mental illness) is something that has been looked down on in society for a while,” the Altamont, Kan., native said. “You can’t really see the symptoms. … It’s something people usually have to deal with by themselves. It’s super hard. You don’t wish that on anyone. Trying to make it a norm, to make it acceptable to talk about and ease that (is important).”

Like many others, Gartner hid her problems from the outside world when depression started to take hold about five years ago. But she removed the mask for good about a year ago -- not that it was easy -- and an avalanche of support came rolling her way.

“When she finally opened up and told us what she was struggling with, we just wanted to be a support system,” BSU head coach Chelsea DeVille said. “It was so refreshing to know that she felt comfortable coming to us and wanting to get help to control it. But then also, it helped me, as a coach, understand her. She’s carrying a lot -- more than I knew -- every single day.”

Gartner, stoic by nature and private by design, has learned to balance college basketball with something a whole lot more demanding. But as she nears the twilight of her collegiate career, Gartner has also gained an understanding that her program isn’t just about basketball.

“Erica is a person who doesn’t show many emotions on the outside. But it was very meaningful that she knew she could open up to us,” junior Taylor Bray said. “I love Erica with all my heart. She’s amazing. I’ve grown close to her throughout the years. And I felt very honored that she felt she could come to us and share with us.”

A surplus of support

Gartner shouldn’t feel this way, she said.

“My family’s amazing and I have amazing friends. My life is good,” Gartner said. “I don’t have any reason to feel this way. For me, it was really just coming to terms with that and accepting that (I still do). My faith was a huge thing. … My relationship with God has really been the one thing that I’ve really gotten to rely on 100 percent.”

Gartner is in a class of her own. Certainly not when it comes to depression -- a dark reality that an estimated 17.3 million American adults face -- but when it comes to her senior status on the basketball team.

The most veteran Beaver, she only plays 10 minutes a game. Her average ranks ninth on the team and is down from a career-high 21 as a sophomore, but she hasn’t let her playing time dictate her outlook.

“This year is about having fun, and for me, that’s being the best teammate I can be,” Gartner said. “We have a lot of fun with this group, so for me, it’s being their cheerleader, being their hype person and supporting them any way I can. … I’ve also become more of a vocal leader. I talk more on the bench, in the locker room to be that senior, that older person they can look up to.”

Bemidji State guard Erica Gartner (3) looks to attack in a December 2018 game against Northern State at the BSU Gymnasium. (File photo)
Bemidji State guard Erica Gartner (3) looks to attack in a December 2018 game against Northern State at the BSU Gymnasium. (File photo)

That maturation hasn’t gone unnoticed, either.

“She’s a consistent glue for us,” DeVille said. “She may not see the court in big minutes or a big role every single night, but when she’s on the bench, she’s talking, she’s cheering. She’s a great teammate when she’s on the court.”

The role Gartner owns now is a far cry from the approach she carried in previous years. She’s evolved from a past that was simultaneously fueled and laden by expectations. As a result, she needed escapes: late nights in an empty gym, solo drives around Lake Bemidji.

Now, she has people.

The BSU program emphasizes family, creating a culture that strives for success on the court but demands empathy off of it. From coaches to players and all others who are willing to help -- Gartner named Bemidji State athletic trainer Heather Bates in particular -- basketball often comes secondary.

“From the get-go, we made it known to everyone that we’re going to be there for them,” Bray said. “It’s an environment where anybody can come and feel welcome. No matter what they’ve been through, they know they have a team supporting them all the way.”

As Gartner continues to battle a mental illness that isn’t going away, she doesn’t have just a handful in her corner. She has an army.

“Everyone has things going on in their lives,” DeVille said. “College is a vulnerable part in your life where you’re away from home for the first time. You grow up quickly. I love that all our women can feel safe, and they know it. I’ve told them I love them. I know they love me back. And that’s a pretty special peace (as) a coach or a player in our program: You’re taken care of.”

Gartner knows she’s no longer isolated with the burden to maintain a lie, to wear her mask. But, even more than that, she feels it.

“That’s a big thing, just to feel,” Gartner said. “I’ve gotten into a rut of numbness where you just go throughout your day. You’re not feeling happy, you’re not feeling sad, you’re just there and going through the motions.

“So I’m in a better spot right now. Mentally, with basketball, with life. I see a future.”