Achea Redd's Crusade

The Columbus community activist struggled to find herself as a preacher's daughter and an NBA wife. Then she confronted her own inner pain and her true calling emerged: destigmatizing mental illness.

Holly Zachariah
Columbus Monthly
Achea Redd

Achea Redd props four or five fluffy pillows behind her, burrows in under her bed’s thick down comforter and makes sure her ever-present steaming cup of coffee is within reach. Then she sets up her laptop for some Zoom calls and an afternoon of relaxation before she picks up her two kids from school.

It’s a busy time for Redd. Tomorrow, she needs to squeeze in another round of interviews to promote her latest book, “Authentic You: A Girl’s Guide to Growing Up Fearless and True.” Plus, she faces sinus surgery in a few days, and there’s her usual whirlwind schedule of guest appearances preaching her gospel of mental-health awareness, self-care, self-love, self-affirmation and empowerment.

Authentic You: A Girl's Guide to Growing Up Fearless and True

With all that on her plate, she recognizes the importance of snuggling in a little me-time on this rainy November afternoon. Admitting that, she often tells others, is not a weakness but a sign of strength. “Being really open and learning to be vulnerable can be taxing,” says Redd, who has spent the past four years coming to terms with her diagnosis of generalized anxiety disorder following a mental health crisis in 2016. Since then, she has shared her journey with the world to inspire a sisterhood of healing, particularly in the Black community where the stigma associated with seeking mental health care is even more real and access to care is often hindered.

“I am so blessed that so many other people along the way share their stories every day with me,” she says. “But it’s emotionally draining to be  Achea Redd.” She balances it all by making sure to fill her emotional cup with family and friends. “Then, what overflows from that cup goes to everyone else,” she says.

***

To outsiders, the 40-year-old Redd appears to have it all: A successful and happy 14-year marriage to retired NBA All-Star and Olympic gold medalist Michael Redd and the two children (10-year-old Ardyn and Michael Jr., who is 13) they are raising on their secluded, nearly 5-acre, custom-designed, $4 million New Albany estate.

Achea Redd with her family

Born and raised in Columbus and a graduate of Harvest Prep Academy (then World Harvest Christian Academy) and Ohio Dominican University, Redd blogs through her Real Girls F.A.R.T. movement (Fearless. Authentic. Rescuers. Trailblazers), has authored two books and is planning a third. Her latest philanthropy effort—the Real Girls Foundation—aims to foster peer-to-peer mentoring and help girls in minority and underserved communities bloom where they are planted. 

But for too long, all that good fortune felt unsteady to her, like wisps of sea foam lathered on a beach. One bad decision, one untended moment of crisis and everything could disappear, she thought. She’d spent too long carrying first the weight of her upbringing—she’s a PK, a “preacher’s kid”—and then the pressure of being the perfect NBA wife in a glamourous world where even her own imperfections can land her husband as the top story on TMZ.

So she soldiered on.

“I saw my mom being very submissive when I was a kid, the dutiful preacher’s wife. I’d always been groomed to ssssshhhh, ssssshhhh, ssssshhhh,’” Redd says as she taps a finger to her lips. “Black women were raised that man is king and that your job is to serve your man. Very unempowering identities were all I’d ever known. I’ve had a lot to relearn as an adult.” 

And that’s where her husband comes in. “This is a ‘we’ thing more than a ‘her’ thing,” says Michael, who retired from the NBA in 2013. “At the end of the day I’ve been going through this journey with her. Achea is not alone in how she is having to navigate anything. We all had to learn as a family. I think more than anything when the world inside you changes, the world around you changes. And she has had an internal metamorphosis. It’s been a beautiful thing to watch.” 

Redd—having just come from a long walk with her mother because daily exercise is an important part of her self-care—settles herself in a living-room easy chair for a wide-ranging interview by the fireplace. Wearing a sweatshirt that reads “Going to therapy is cool,” she leans her head back and smiles when asked about the husband she knew as a childhood friend but married in 2006 after they reconnected as adults. 

“He is the most patient human being and kindest soul,” she says. Her face softens as she talks about their weekly date nights of dinner out and conversation and sharing a bottle of good wine. “We reconnect. We talk about past, our future, our present. We evolve together.” 

But it has been a process, she says. She recalls the pressures of being an NBA wife, of playing a role, of dressing to the nines and dutifully attending every home game even through her entire first pregnancy, of trying to fit in without losing herself. 

“That wasn’t Michael’s fault. It was the culture. So I did what I had to do and learned from it. Now? I’m about the seventh version of Achea that he’s had in this marriage.” She stops and releases one of her characteristic bold laughs. “That’s why I say he’s patient.” 

Those who know her well say that honesty and authenticity are among the things that make her message so powerful, especially during this country’s social-justice revival and racial reckoning and at a time when everyone has had to work hard to simply stay steady in the choppy waters of a modern-day pandemic. 

Christie Angel, president and CEO of YWCA Columbus, invited Redd to offer the keynote address in 2019 at the organization’s annual Activists and Agitators fundraiser. And she still remembers well how so many people—from young girls to elders—approached Redd after she spoke. All generations connected with the truths she laid bare, and they saw themselves in her, Angel says. 

Redd speaks at the YWCA Columbus' Activists and Agitators event in 2019.

“When it comes to the image of the strong Black woman, Achea is helping to reframe what empowering means. Part of empowerment is taking control of your health, your mind, your body, your decision,” Angel says. “If that means that you aren’t the strongest person in the room and you need to step back and ask for help or take a moment, that can be empowering in itself.” 

And that can certainly be a mountain to climb in the Black community, where for generations girls have been taught from a young age that a Black woman is expected to be the unwavering, unflappable backbone of her family. She’s a fixer, not the one who needs to be fixed. And often, the message is one of religion: If she is troubled, she should just give it to God. 

Even today, Angel says, the data shows that Black and brown girls still deal with that stigma and the traumas attached to it. “‘You just need to go to church,’ they’re told—you hear those anecdotal stories about that all the time. Or ‘You just need to try harder,’” says Angel, who as a Black woman has felt those pressures herself. When Redd spoke of growing up under the weight of those very expectations and how therapy and medication have helped her harness her anxiety, Angel says many in the room were moved to tears—not out of sadness for her story, but because it resonated so. 

“We all recognize how difficult it can be to get to that point of acceptance. Achea has a message that self-caring is OK,” she says. “And women need to hear that. Talking with Achea just makes you feel good.” 

***

On a September morning in 2016, everything came crashing down. The way Redd remembers it, she figures she had been awake at least 24 hours, unable to settle down and her insides in turmoil. She tried to braid her daughter’s hair before school and couldn’t; her trembling hands weren’t steady enough. She knew she was in trouble. 

Be Free, Be You by Achea Redd

She’d been in therapy off and on since about 2011 because she had finally realized if she didn’t deal with the trauma of having grown up with a controlling father at home, she couldn’t be the wife and mother she wanted to be. Yet things had changed since a breast cancer scare that July. The lump turned out to be benign, but the waiting, the wondering, the uncertainty all took a slice from her surely as if it had been a surgeon’s knife. 

“I was scared. My kids were so young. If I died, would they even remember me?” she recalls thinking. “The trauma of being forced to face how quickly life can change in 48 hours. It did irreparable damage to my psyche. There was no turning back.” 

For weeks, she dealt internally with the residual stress—carrying it herself as she thought she should—and that manifested into very real physical ailments: gut issues, headaches, soaring blood pressure. Then came the tremors, the muscle aches, the panic attacks, the insomnia. 

“I couldn’t convince myself I wasn’t dying,” Redd says. “Until finally that morning I knew I needed help.” 

With her husband out of town on a business trip, she called her mother at work and told her to come get the kids. Andria Williams says she didn’t know what to think. “My heart was just pounding on the drive over,” says Williams, 60. “I just thought she needed to talk to somebody. 

When I got there it was scary for me to see her and hear her and watch her go through that trauma she was feeling. I knew there was nothing that I could do but be there for the kids. So I listened, and I told her, whether we go left or whether we go right, we go together.” 

The office of Redd’s primary care doctor was close by, so she drove there. And that very day she was diagnosed with anxiety. She eventually opted for medication as treatment, coupled with therapy and a regimen of self-care that includes regular cardio exercise, plenty of dedicated family time, hitting her knees in prayer at least once a day and giving herself some grace when a few hours under the blankets is the best she can do. 

Having her mother with her every step of the way has also been healing. Though Redd no longer has a relationship with her father, her mother is her best friend. Williams and one of Redd’s younger twin brothers and his wife and six children all live close by. The roles of sister, daughter and beloved “Auntie Keys” are all titles Redd embraces and cherishes. 

“Self-awareness is a wonderful thing,” she says. “If you learn how to be grateful for all of your journey—even the bad stuff—then you can get the most out of what you do and what you have every day.” 

***

The growth and blossoming of that tight mother-daughter relationship is among the things that led to Redd’s latest book, which offers advice for and explanations on many of the things she wished someone had told her when she was a young girl—realistic expectations, positive body image, self-care, surviving heartbreak, recognizing toxic relationships and more, with her own stories sprinkled in. And it helped lead to her newfound focus on mentoring Black girls and breaking cycles. 

The progression from sharing her story with wide audiences to zeroing in on younger minority populations was a natural one for Redd, says Bethanne Tilson, director of constituent giving with the Nationwide Children’s Hospital Foundation and one of Redd’s dearest friends. 

Tilson has known Redd for more than a decade, but it was only after Redd’s crisis in 2016 that the two brainstormed next steps over a lunch. Having recognized how much trauma she had been carrying from her youth—and how always trying to squeeze herself into someone’s else’s box of expectations had finally led to the fissuring of the protective shell she thought she had so carefully crafted—Redd wanted to work on kids’ and teens’ mental health. She aimed to become an advocate and mentor. She felt a calling to be the inspiration for those in the community who still hadn’t found anyone. She needed them to know someone understands. 

And, perhaps most importantly, she wanted Black children and teens to hear the message coming from someone who looked like them. 

Redd joined the efforts to build the hospital’s Big Lots Behavioral Health Pavilion and became an integral part and public face of its “On Our Sleeves” campaign, which seeks to destigmatize mental health care, erase stereotypes and provide better resources for children, adolescents and their families. 

Tilson says there were skeptics at first about Redd’s involvement in the campaign, with a few wondering what a woman of such status could bring to the table: “It can be easy for others to say ‘Oh, she has everything in the world. Why is she crying or staying in bed?’” 

But her experiences are exactly what makes Redd’s message so powerful. “She normalizes the topic of mental health. Because she is, in fact, just like us. She feels what we all feel,” Tilson says. “Yes, she’s had good fortune. But she was in a position where she really wasn’t supposed to talk about anything important at all. She was supposed to look pretty, dress nicely, go to NBA games and lead the PTA. But you know what? She is talking about her journey. She is talking about important topics. She makes these stories normal and then people listen. They really listen.” 

That’s something that sometimes still leaves Redd in awe. Guided by her faith, she approaches each day with gratitude and thanks God for allowing her to be a positive influence on others and putting her in the right places at the right times, especially in the past year of such turmoil and unrest. 

And experts agree: The need has maybe never been greater for high-quality and accessible mental health care, especially in minority communities. Last summer, after all, only magnified the disparities even for those who previously refused to understand the true significance of the inequities of care in the Black and brown communities. 

As many as half of all minority youth are less likely to have complete access (anything beyond an initial visit or something more adequate than low-quality care) than their majority peers. Mental health care and mental health related emergency room visits are increasing at a higher rate for non-Hispanic Black youth compared to white children, says Whitney Raglin Bignall, a pediatric psychologist with Nationwide Children’s. 

Parents in the community must balance preparing their kids for the future while also teaching them they don’t have to do it without help. And that, Raglin Bignall says, can be a challenge. 

“There is a worry that if you don’t share this real experience for Black and brown children in America, you will leave them unprepared. Parents have to say that people see you differently, they look at you differently, they often expect differences from you, and with that comes so much pressure to be a certain way or to behave a certain way,” she says. “But how can you be strong and not afraid of your emotions at the same time? And understanding our emotions include seeking help. That can be hard.” 

***

Redd’s mental health recovery is a daily journey. In fact, in 2020, she hit another dark spell. She had tried to wean herself from her medications, and that was a mistake. 

“I’d never been as low as I was in March,” she says. “When I’m in that mind space, I feel like I’m not good enough for my husband and my kids. So I would say ‘OK, God. It would be OK if you just didn’t wake me up.’” 

But she stayed the course. She went back on medication, continued therapy and doubled down on self-care. And started refocusing on bigger plans. 

She hopes to find a grant writer for her foundation, and in 2021 aims to use “Authentic You” as the base for a curriculum in a mentoring program for minority girls. 

And not in spite of all that has happened, but indeed because of it, she faces each day with a renewed spirit of hope and faith, allowing gratitude to wash over her soul. 

“There is trauma associated with just having Black skin. Racism and mental health intersect, and you cannot talk about one unless you talk about the other. And because of the stigma, we’ve been taught to hold it all inside,” she says. “But no more. I want to help people who look like me tell their stories, to create little pockets of space where they are given permission to be free and bold and authentic. Everyone deserves that.”