If Herschel Walker wins Georgia’s U.S. Senate seat, he would become the most prominent elected official in the nation who has struggled openly with a mental illness.
For some, he would be an important symbol and champion for a type of illness that has long been stigmatized.
But Walker’s mental health story is complicated, interlaced with allegations of domestic violence and featuring a controversial therapist who has said a patient’s choice of crayon color can reveal whether he or she is gay or even possessed by demons.
In Washington, mental illness has long been taboo for elected officials. When word leaked out in 1972 that vice presidential nominee Thomas Eagleton had been treated for depression with electroshock therapy he was forced from the Democratic ticket. The only current member of Congress who acknowledges a mental illness is Arizona Democratic U.S. Rep. Ruben Gallego, an Iraq War veteran who says he suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder.
Walker, who wrote about his battle with dissociative identity disorder, or DID, in a 2008 memoir “Breaking Free,” declined an interview request from The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. He has said in past interviews and in motivational speeches that he is healed but provided few details.
“Herschel Walker wrote a book about his mental health 14 years ago, has discussed it extensively and was praised by reporters across the country for his transparency on the subject — that is, until he became a Republican Senate candidate,” said Scott Paradise, Walker’s campaign manager.
But experts say that DID is complicated, often requiring years of therapy. Sometimes even after patients have learned to manage the condition they must still seek out help at various points in their lives. Walker’s campaign refused to answer questions about his current treatment or whether he still has symptoms.
About this story
A lot has changed since President Franklin Delano Roosevelt was able hide his paralysis from the public early in the 20th Century. Ronald Reagan, then the oldest person to assume the presidency, waived doctor-patient confidentiality, allowing his physicians to talk to the media about his mental fitness. Today, it is commonplace for presidents and other top elected officials to update the public on their health.
In Georgia, U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson announced in 2015 that he had been diagnosed with Parkinson’ diseases. The public supports this transparency. A 2020 Rasmussen poll found that 86 percent of likely U.S. voters rate a candidate’s health as important to their vote. Reporting on candidates’ backgrounds is part of the Atlanta Journal Constitution’s commitment to providing voters the information they need to make informed choices in this year’s elections.
In his book, Walker wrote that his life began to unravel after he retired from football in 1998. But he didn’t know the cause.
The Heisman Trophy winner said he reached a breaking point in February 2001. Furious with a man who was late delivering a car, Walker hopped in his Mercedes sedan with a loaded gun to hunt him down.
“The logical side of me knew that what I was thinking of doing to this man — murdering him for messing up my schedule — was not a viable alternative,” Walker wrote. “But another side of me was so angry that all I could think about was how satisfying it would feel to step out of the car, pull out the gun, slip off the safety, and squeeze the trigger. It would be no different from sighting at the targets I’d fired at for years — except for the visceral enjoyment I’d get from seeing the small entry wound and the spray of brain tissue and blood — like a Fourth of July firework — exploding behind him.”
As Walker drove to find the man, he said an internal struggle played out in his head. He pulled to a stop after seeing a “SMILE JESUS LOVES YOU” sticker on the back of a truck.
“Something was clearly wrong with me and I had to figure out what it was,” he wrote.
Walker went to see Jerry Mungadze. The two had met decades earlier at a track meet and reconnected at a Dallas dinner party. Mungadze now said he specialized in treating trauma patients. Mungadze worked with Walker over the next weeks, then handed down a diagnosis: dissociative identity disorder.
Walker said he had 12 alternate personalities — or alters — including the warrior (who played football), the sentry (who avoided emotional attachments) and the thrill seeker (who played Russian roulette with a loaded gun).
Walker wrote that he later went to Del Amo Psychiatric Hospital in Torrance, California, for outpatient treatment. There, he said, doctors confirmed the diagnosis and he took part in group therapy with other DID patients, the book said. He provided few other details.
Walker did not include in his book a string of encounters with police that began around this same time.
In May 2001, police in Bedford, Texas, were called to a building where Mungadze had an office. Walker had punched a hole in the wall after being confronted there by a girlfriend and his wife, Cindy, according to a law enforcement report. The call was described as a welfare check.
In September of the same year, Mungadze summoned police to the Walkers’ home in Irving, Texas, after becoming alarmed by something Walker told his wife, according to a police report. Walker was described in the police report as “volatile,” and officers said they would place the home on a caution list since Walker “does have violent tendencies and has talked about having a shootout with police.” Both reports were heavily redacted. No charges were filed in either case.
The Walkers divorced in 2002. That same year, a former Dallas Cowboy cheerleader accused Walker of threatening her and “sneaking around” outside her suburban Dallas home. Again, no charges were filed. Walker has denied the allegations.
Roughly four years after his diagnosis, Walker’s ex-wife, now using the last name Grossman, sought a protective order against Walker. Grossman’s sister Maria Tsettos alleged in an affidavit that Walker had repeatedly threatened to kill Grossman and her boyfriend. A Dallas County judge granted the protective order and temporarily barred Walker from possessing guns.
In a 2008 interview with ABC News, Grossman said that while she and Walker were married he repeatedly held a gun to her head and threatened to blow her “brains out.” In a CNN interview that same year, Grossman said he held a straight razor to her throat and choked her. Walker has not denied the allegations but has said he doesn’t remember the instances. In the same interview. Grossman told ABC that she saw a change in Walker after he left pro football.
“I began to see the alters,” Grossman said. “His physical countenance would change. My first thought was that he had the devil in him.”
Walker said in the ABC interview that he had his alters under control. But in 2012 a Texas woman filed a police report accusing him of threatening to “blow her head off” and then kill himself if she broke up with him. Myka Dean said she was Walker’s longtime girlfriend, according to a January 2012 police report. No charges were filed against Walker, who has denied the claims.
Jan Christianson, executive director of the Georgia Coalition Against Domestic Violence, called the allegations against Walker ”deeply troubling.”
“Mental illness does not excuse his behavior,” she said. “You have to take accountability for your actions. You can’t hide behind a diagnosis.”
What is DID?
Dissociative identity disorder — or DID — was first included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders — the handbook for mental health practitioners that’s also called the DSM — in 1994. Before that it had been referred to as multiple personality disorder.
If Americans know about DID, it’s probably because of Hollywood. “Sybill,” “The Three Faces of Eve” and “The United States of Tara” have all dramatized women with fractured personalities.
Among some in the psychiatric community, DID is still a contentious diagnosis.
“It shouldn’t be,” said Dr. J. Douglas Bremner, director of Emory University’s Clinical Neuroscience Research Unit. “It’s in the DSM for a reason.”
There is general agreement that childhood trauma — often severe physical or sexual abuse — sparks DID. A child creates alters to cope; the alter experiences the pain and abuse, sparing the child.
Walker said that as a pudgy child with a stutter he was bullied by other kids in his hometown of Wrightsville in Middle Georgia. He described being so lonely he paid other kids to talk to him.
A key symptom is missing time. For instance, someone with DID may end up in a location and not know how they got there. There is no medication proven to treat DID, although certain drugs can be used to alleviate other conditions, such as anxiety or depression, that can accompany it. Instead, patients undergo intensive therapy. The goal is to try to face the trauma that triggered the condition in the first place and to eventually integrate various personalities.
Dr. Colin Ross, who has studied DID extensively and treats patients in Austin, Texas, and the Dallas-Fort Worth area, said some patients can achieve full integration of their personalities while others learn to manage the condition. But that often takes years in therapy, he said. Sometimes a memory or a stressor can trigger a relapse, he said, requiring additional therapy.
Demons and crayons
Walker has framed DID as another tough challenge he overcame. If one person is pivotal in that recovery narrative, it’s Mungadze, who wrote the forward to Walker’s book.
“Dr. Jerry has played an important role in my healing process. I consider him one of my best friends and probably the most essential,” Walker wrote in “Breaking Free.”
But in writings and interviews, Mungadze — who is a licensed professional counselor but not a medical doctor — has embraced highly unorthodox beliefs and methods. Mental illness, he has said, can sometimes be confused with demonic possession.
In a paper presented in 2000, Mungadze provided a checklist of questions practitioners should ask their patients. Among them, “Have they willingly, under any circumstances, vowed to follow Satan?”
An ex-pastor, Mungadze, earned a bachelor’s degree in Bible from the Dallas Bible College and a master’s degree in biblical studies from the Dallas Theological Seminary. He has a doctorate in counselor education from the University of North Texas, where he says he minored in psychology. His doctoral thesis involved claims of demonic possession among people in his native Zimbabwe. Mungadze doesn’t appear to have any specific training in neurology.
“For many years, when I lived in Africa, I saw people who were demonized,” Mungadze said an interview with Christian televangelist Benny Hinn. “But I didn’t know you could see demonization in the brain, which I do now.”
He’s referring to a method he pioneered — widely debunked as unscientific — in which a person is asked to color in a drawing of the human brain. Mungadze, who is colorblind, said the shade of crayon a patient selects for various parts of the brain reveals what’s wrong with him or her. Those steeped in witchcraft and the occult, for instance, typically choose black, brown and gray crayons, he said.
Mungadze has also said he is able to erase all signs of homosexuality from a patient’s brain.
“When the healing takes place those areas of the brain that were showing the homosexuality showed heterosexuality,” he said in an interview with Joni Lamb on the Christian network Daystar.
Mungadze has denied he is a gay conversion therapist. Through his wife, Cyndi, Mungadze declined a request for an interview with the AJC.
A Harris Poll survey conducted for the American Psychiatric Association in 2019 found that 87% of American adults believe that mental illness is not something to be ashamed of. Still, in the same poll, one-third of respondents said they were scared of people with mental health disorders.
That doesn’t surprise Olga Trujillo, who was diagnosed with DID at age 31. Now 60, she said stigma surrounding mental illness is still a problem.
Trujillo said she doesn’t agree with Walker’s politics and is unfamiliar with his brushes with law enforcement. But as a spokesperson for DID, bringing more attention to a mental condition that is often misunderstood, she admires him.
“He’s this amazing athlete who has led a successful life,” Trujillo said. “He didn’t have to speak out, but he did.”