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BILL PLASCHKE

Ron Artest turns out to be a mental health expert

The Lakers star lends his fame to a push for funding for mental health programs in schools, using his own story to tell middle schoolers in Montebello it's all right to ask for and receive help.

September 09, 2010|Bill Plaschke

This, I had to see.

The looniest Laker speaking to middle schoolers about mental health?

"I know no parent wants their kid to be hearing from the guy who was on the Jimmy Kimmel show in his boxers," said Ron Artest from the stage of the Eastmont Intermediate School in Montebello on Thursday morning. "But I put all that aside today."

The Laker who impulsively dyes his hair, tweets his anger and was recently stopped by police while driving what appeared to be a Formula One race car through Los Angeles was speaking to middle schoolers about the importance of mental stability?

"I was like, I don't think I can do this, this is an important issue and I won't want to get out the wrong message," Artest told several hundred young teens. "Then I said, 'You know what?... Who else better to do this than me?' "

And so he did it. At the invitation of Rep. Grace F. Napolitano (D-Norwalk), who is pushing a bill providing funding for schools to set up mental health programs, Artest stepped back into the punch line of the joke that has haunted him for most of his 30 years.

In torn jeans, tennis shoes, collared shirt, sport coat and vulnerable grin, the wacky one took the stage at his weakest.

I've never seen him stronger.

For 20 minutes in an auditorium that was hushed and reverent, the Lakers tough guy bared not his elbows or his fists, but his soul.

Artest talked about being in therapy from the time his parents separated when he was 13 years old. He talked about being counseled for anger issues, marriage issues, parenting issues.

"I'm like, how can a kid in East L.A … get the same help that I got without paying so much?" he said.

Artest embraced every stereotype about him, explained every rip, displayed the sort of courage that goes far beyond staring down Paul Pierce.

"When you think about mental health, you don't have to be afraid," he said.

Artest acknowledged the stress of being a father at age 16. He talked about growing up in a family with a history of mental illness. He urged the youngsters to seek out school counselors.

"That doesn't mean you're crazy, it just means you have some issues in your life," he said. "This is a way to be able to talk to somebody about your problems."

Sometimes he jumbled his thoughts. At one point he stared down for several long minutes at his script. It was funky, but it was perfect, and when he ended the speech by simply waving his hands and saying, "See ya later," the children roared.

"I don't know how we got so lucky to be able find Ron," said Napolitano.

Artest's only more impressive performance in his first Lakers season was his brilliant Game 7 against the Boston Celtics, after which he made everyone laugh again by publicly thanking "my psychiatrist."

I'm not laughing now. He has the smarts to mean it. He has the bravery to say it.

Well, actually, as with all things Artest, I am laughing a little bit. As Times columnist Chris Erskine initially reported, Houston-based Santhi Periasamy is not a psychiatrist, she's a psychologist.

"I said 'psychiatrist' because I have a hard time pronouncing, 'psychologist,' " Artest said.

This is actually an important distinction because Artest noted he is pushing talk therapy, not medication, as answer to children's problems. "It's all about the communication factor," he said.

Despite widespread speculation, Artest said he was not on medication during his calm Lakers season, not even in a Game 7 in which he seemed to play in a content daze while others, even the cool Kobe Bryant, were nervously jumping out of their shoes.

"No, I don't do medication, I'm not pushing that, no, no, no," Artest said. "I have used other ways."

He knows that some of these ways are difficult for children to accept. He knows the adolescent fingers that get pointed at those brave enough to seek help for emotional issues. So he's got a suggestion.

"If you're scared of the word 'therapist' or 'counselor,' you can see a 'professional communicator,' " he told the kids with a smile. "And for free, which is important."

To keep those services free, Artest later said he is considering auctioning off his championship ring to raise money for mental health care.

"I worked so hard to get this ring, but if this ring will help others, then it's a job well done," he said.

Once again, here in the land of Ron-Ron, everything isn't exactly as it seems. Napolitano is smartly trying to convince Artest to lend his ring instead of selling it, sharing it with several mental health organizations or donors throughout the year.

Said Napolitano: "He wants to give it away, we're saying don't give it away."

Said Artest with a sigh: "We're going to talk about it."

Whatever he does with the ring, he didn't need it Thursday, his mere appearance at Eastmont Intermediate School showing the true measure of a champion, those of us who once doubted his impact here now looking like the crazy ones.

bill.plaschke@latimes.com

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