Professional Athletes and Mental Health

Last summer, Royce White, an aspiring professional basketball player, spoke candidly about his anxiety disorder before the National Basketball Association Draft. Most NBA teams recognized his talent but were hesitant to risk a draft pick on a player who admitted to, among other things, a fear of flying. The Houston Rockets took a chance, selecting White in the first round with the 16th overall pick.

We are more than two months into the NBA season and White hasn’t played a game. Earlier this week the Rockets announced they had suspended White for “refusing to provide services as required by his contract.”

White has said the Rockets are ignoring the advice of mental health professionals and that he won’t go to work until the experts, and not the Rockets, have final say on his medical decisions. It is an unfortunate situation but one that could spur positive changes in the way professional sports leagues deal with mental health issues.

This past fall, after the NBA Draft but before the start of the season, I spoke with Mike Bantom, the NBA’s Senior Vice President of Player Development, about how the league handles mental health issues. I also spoke with representatives from the National Football League and Major League Baseball. All three of these leagues take mental health seriously.

“A growing number of our teams have a mental health specialist as part of their staff,” Bantom said. “In some cases players meet with them regularly.” If a player doesn’t want to go through his team, the league has a network of doctors to deal with “all types of mental health issues.”

Every MLB team has a licensed health care professional on staff, an individual who can provide assistance to players directly or refer them to an outside mental health clinician. The league has a psychiatric consultant on mental health issues. Similarly, every NFL team has a player engagement director who helps players navigate available resources. The league office has a staff member with a doctorate in counseling. All of the league representatives I spoke to stressed the importance of confidentiality.

Many athletes, just like the general population, have reservations about discussing their mental health. Said Bantom:

One of the ways in which we’ve tried to get our players to take advantage of how helpful counseling in its numerous forms can be is trying to destigmatize it and not look at it as a weakness but as an enhancer—something that can help you become a better person, a more efficient person. In appealing to them as athletes, we talk about it being a performance-enhancer as well. There’s no getting around the fact that for the average person it’s tough to admit that you need help because of the way the public looks at it. But we’ve really tried to destigmatize it in our talks with the teams and getting players to look at it as a positive, an advantage, and a resource.

Robert Gulliver, the NFL’s Executive Vice President of Human Resources, has similar goals.

We’re talking to providers that have successfully rolled out mental health services with campaigns that show that it’s perfectly OK to access mental health services. I would not say the players are part of the problem, but this is an opportunity to change how mental health is viewed and to change the culture.

Shortly after we spoke last summer, the league introduced NFL Life Line, a phone service that provides confidential support for current and former NFL players, coaches, team and league staff, and their family members who may be in crisis.

No amount of programs or precautions can prevent every tragedy or problem. Last month, Jovan Belcher of the NFL’s Kansas City Chiefs killed his girlfriend and then himself. There were reports that he had received counseling from the Chiefs. And then there is White, who feels he is not getting the support he needs from his team or league. Confidentiality prevents us from knowing all of the facts, but perhaps White just doesn’t feel comfortable with the professionals the team and league are providing, even if they are qualified. Or maybe his expectations of professional basketball were too high; he has tweeted that his “main worry is being treated as a digit instead of a human,” but pro sports teams are results-based businesses.

White, and all athletes, certainly should have high standards when it comes to their mental health care. There is reason to believe the leagues are working hard to meet them.

– Andrew Kahn

2 responses

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