Mental illness disrupted Jimmy Piersall's baseball career. For Mia St. John, it has propelled her to three boxing championship belts.
Unrolling a white hand-wrap as she sits on a chair at Outlaws Gym in Tarzana, Calif., St. John, 43, says that she suffers from obsessive-compulsive disorder. "If I didn't have that, I wouldn't have been so successful." She adds, "I can't stop and won't stop until I've perfected (something). I won't let go."
St. John, who also has endured panic attacks, has learned how to control those episodes and how to harness her obsessive-compulsive behavior to her advantage. She takes medication and has been in therapy for years. A regular attendee at meetings of the National Alliance for Mental Illness' Westside L.A. branch (namila.org), she is a spokesman for the mentally ill, having hosted fund-raisers and filmed PSA's to raise awareness of mental illness, particularly among Latino youth.
Recently, St. John, who was born in San Francisco and is of Mexican descent, provided computers, electricity and Internet access to La Cantera, a barrio in Zacatecas, Mexico, through her foundation, El Saber Es Poder/Knowledge Is Power (miastjohnfoundation.org).
The graduate of Cal. State Northridge University, with a B.A. in psychology, notably did not build a boxing gym, the way many boxing champs have. "It kills brain cells," says St. John, with a mischievous smile.
Despite having fought professionally for 15 years, including many appearances on the undercard of Oscar De La Hoya matches, St. John still retains the looks that once made her a Playboy cover girl. She also still has a quick jab and right cross, which she demonstrates in the ring while a trainer holds up the focus mitts. All of the punches land crisply, like fastballs smacking a catcher's glove.
St. John, who has long black hair like Pocahantas, which she ties into a pony tail, is training for a possible rematch against Christy Martin, who beat her in a controversial decision years ago.
St. John wants to avenge that loss and earn her "rightful victory" over her foe. She will likely have to step up from her natural weight class, lightweight, to do so.
In the meantime, she has been invited to testify on Feb. 17 before Congress. Along with the Lakers' Ron Artest, who also has battled mental-health issues, St. John will be speaking on behalf of Rep. Grace Napolitano's Mental Health in Schools Act, which calls for $200 mill. to fund more mental-health counselors in public schools.
Just recently, UCLA's Higher Education Research Institute came out with the results of its annual survey on stress levels in college freshmen, finding that the psychological fitness of these students was at the lowest level in the 25-year history of the survey.
St. John would like to help kids earlier before they end up in the Twin Towers, the well-known jail facility in downtown Los Angeles. She says that roughly 70% of Latino youth in that facility reported mental-health issues, which, she adds, carry a harsh stigma in Latino culture.
Her own son, 21, has been diagnosed with schizophrenia and has been in and out of hospitals.
That is why she hopes to get her PSA on Spanish-language networks. To let Latino kids know that it is okay to be in therapy and take medication. In fact, it is more than okay. It is what has allowed St. John to thrive, to be a champion, and maybe even to knock out Christy Martin.