How Jack Salt’s Highs and Lows Led Him to Better Mental Health

August 31, 2023 By Jane Kelly, Jane Kelly,

Jack Salt’s name is as distinctive as the man.

The gentle giant, whose wall-like screens helped propel the University of Virginia’s men’s basketball team to the 2019 NCAA championship, is a towering, 6-foot-10 New Zealander and the first player from his country to not only reach the men’s championship game, but to be on the winning team.

But the overtime win against Texas Tech in his last collegiate game perched Salt atop a dizzying high that soon came crashing down.

Salt had an unusually long bout with mononucleosis, soon followed by injuries that colluded to keep him off the basketball court for two years – two years away from the thing that had driven his life since he started playing at the age of 10.

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“Probably one of the most challenging times was immediately after Virginia, to experience the high of the national championship and then to have seven months of not being able to work out and a lot of uncertainty at a time where I personally really struggled,” he said.

Salt ultimately announced his retirement from professional basketball last December, most recently having played in New Zealand’s National Basketball League for the Canterbury Rams.

Now, to help the next person, he is sharing his mental health struggles with his fellow Kiwis and how he learned to cope through a new campaign, called “Voices of Hope.” The tagline of the campaign is “It’s not weak to speak,” and Salt has taken that message to heart.

He recently reached out UVA Today about working with Voices of Hope, “a project I’m extremely passionate about,” he said. “They interview athletes and ex-athletes just to share honest and open conversations about dealing with mental health.”

Salt talking to a crowd

Salt talks about perseverance to student groups in his home country of New Zealand. (Contributed photo)

Salt shared more of his story during a call from his home in Christchurch. It goes without saying that being physically fit is very important to him, but being ill with mono and the accompanying odd periods of dizziness removed working out from his life. He called it a dark time. Toward the end of his illness, Salt discovered meditation.

“The dizziness was still there a little bit,” he said. “I really just wanted to find a tool to help work on my headspace. I wouldn’t say it was a terrible place to be, but I was struggling.”

Salt downloaded a meditation app. “I’ve been using that pretty religiously since 2019,” he said.

“For me, the point is not to draw a line between formal practice and everyday life,” he said. “It’s kind of blurring the line between what you do in practice and what you do in everyday life, because it’s very easy to get caught up in what you’re doing next or ruminate on maybe what you didn’t do so well.”

Jack Salt in Voices of Hope campaign

Salt says he is “extremely passionate” about his work with Voices of Hope. (Contributed photo)

Salt said he got his first taste of mental health counseling while he was playing at UVA. “That was the first time I had a formal session with any kind of sports psychologist,” he said. “I would love to shout out to Dr. Freeman because he was amazing,” Salt said, referring to sports psychologist Jason Freeman. “Having Dr. Freeman as a resource to have conversations with was extremely beneficial for my career. I just think UVA is extremely lucky to have people like that. It made the program very special to me.”

What Would Salt Say to His First-Year Self?

Looking back, Salt has advice for his first-year self and others.

Salt and basketball crew

Salt, second from left, poses with basketball coach Tony Bennett, center, and teammates, Justice Bartley, left, Isaiah Wilkins, second from right, and Trevon Gross, right, at 2019 Final Exercises. (Contributed photo)

“Don’t be so hard on yourself. The highs and lows are all a part of it,” he said. “When you’re feeling overwhelmed, go to the Aquatic and Fitness Center for a sauna break or catch up with a friend for a meal. You are going to feel overwhelmed at times, and that’s OK.”

He encourages new students to engage with the UVA community. “The people are what made my time at Virginia so special,” he said. “I would tell my younger self to make the most of all the amazing people you’re currently surrounded by.”

And to the Class of 2027, Salt has this message: “Charlottesville holds a special place in my heart. I hope you all enjoy your time as much as I did. Go Hoos!”

Media Contact

Jane Kelly

University News Senior Associate Office of University Communications