Why the NBA took mental health seriously: ‘We believe in it, but we’ve also seen a growing need for it’

The Athletic

After missing a game last month, Chicago Bulls center Andre Drummond wanted people to know he was dealing with mental health issues.

“It’s normal to ask for help. It’s OK to feel. It’s OK to be emotional,” Drummond said.

Denver Nuggets forward Aaron Gordon said it “hurts” to be snubbed from the All-Star Game, and he overcame the pain with “journaling” recommended by his therapist.

Memphis Grizzlies antagonist Dillon Brooks said his strategy to tame his temper and avoid having too many technical issues in the playoffs was to “get back to my practice of mindfulness.”

Bucks superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo pledged a $1 million donation for mental health services in Milwaukee last month. In a 2021 interview with GQ Magazine, he said he went to therapy to deal with the pressure, and this month he told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel he thought about quitting basketball in 2020. because of this pressure.

“I wouldn’t necessarily describe it as endemic unhappiness – I think what I would describe would be an awareness, an openness and an energy to really commit, perhaps intentionally and proactively, to being well and staying good,” said Jamila, vice president of player development for the NBA. said Wideman.

The vast subject of mental health, with all its moving parts, has become such a common and open conversation in the NBA that Athleticism reached out to the league and all 30 teams to see what coordinated efforts are being made to help players take better care of themselves.

The NBA is by no means the only major sport to take mental health seriously. On April 8, the Detroit Tigers placed outfielder Austin Meadows on the 10-day injured list, citing his anxiety. Tennis star Naomi Osaka has pulled out of the French Open and skipped Wimbledon in 2021 as part of a mental health break. Gymnastics star Simone Biles has pulled out of individual competition at the Tokyo Olympics, citing her mental health. The US Olympic Committee recently received a $10 million donation for mental health services. The NFL requires all teams to have at least one behavioral health specialist on staff.

Since the start of the 2019-20 season, the NBA has required all teams to have a formal relationship with a mental health practitioner – a therapist or psychologist – in the market, as well as a licensed psychiatrist for medications and to address more serious concerns. Teams must have written action plans for mental health emergencies and have a “playbook” of health and wellness exercises, and all players have free access to the mindfulness app Head space.

“We believe in it, but we’ve also seen a growing need,” Mavericks general manager Nico Harrison said. “More and more players are taking advantage of the service we provide. This is just my own uneducated guess, but I think with social media, and also adding COVID-19 to the mix, I just think this generation has had a chance to really get in touch with their feelings. It’s good to talk to people about how you feel now, compared to my generation when it was like that, you just fight for it.

Wideman, who is also heavily involved in the NBA’s mental health initiative called Mind Health, said all 30 teams are in compliance with NBA rules. Athleticism attempted to survey each team to see how each complied, and while a few clubs refused to respond at all, and a few others barely responded, either out of concern for confidentiality or fear of giving up a competitive advantage, it is clear that many organizations have far beyond what is required.

  • The Mavericks have had a full-time sports psychologist on their team for the past 20 years and this season added a second who travels with the team and maintains a stable of on-call outside consultants.
  • The Los Angeles Lakers have a mental health director who manages a four-person team.
  • The Philadelphia 76ers are keeping four mental health professionals on call, and that number has increased since the pandemic began. A team spokesperson said the Sixers believe it is best to have a panel of different backgrounds and expertise to match the diversity of their players.
  • The Washington Wizards have three psychologists and therapists on staff and have access to dozens more through its partnership with MedStar, their local healthcare provider. The Wizards have also expanded their staff since the pandemic began.
  • The Miami Heat have three on-call psychologists, but a number of their players also use their own therapists, a team spokesperson said.
  • The Bulls provide guidance not only to their players and coaches, but also to their employees working on the business side of the organization.
  • The Phoenix Suns keep a sports psychologist and a psychiatrist on their team. The Charlotte Hornets, Detroit Pistons, Orlando Magic, Toronto Raptors and San Antonio Spurs are also carrying two mental health professionals, and the Pistons have access to more through Henry Ford Health.

A lot of that goes back at least to something big Kevin Love and DeMar DeRozan did five years ago. Within a month in early 2018, the two went public with their own mental health struggles. DeRozan tweeted that he was battling depression (and later explained it to the Toronto Star), and Love wrote a first-person account in The Players’ Tribune of his struggles with crippling anxiety, which included an attack of panic that knocked him out of a game of jumpers.

“Think of DeMar’s tweet in 2018, the story Kevin Love shared; we’ve heard them and realize we need to be more intentional to make sure the resources are there at the team level,” said Dr. Kensa Gunter, psychologist for the Atlanta Hawks and director of the Mind Health program.

“I think the more we keep having this conversation, the more we keep hearing from players sharing their personal stories, which can include how they’ve dealt with their mental health at different times in their lives, I think there’s just an increased awareness and desire to make sure those kinds of resources are available,” Gunter said.

Buses for teams visiting Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse in Cleveland arrive at the loading docks, which empty out onto a former hardwood basketball court the Cavs use to entertain VIP patrons. From this field, players go to the right, down a long, narrow hallway with fluorescent lights and cream-colored walls. The visiting team’s press conference room and the waiting room for the visiting executives are on the right, and the locker room on the left.

In that same hallway, near the tunnel that minor league hockey players use to plod their way to the ice on skates, is another locker room. During Cavs games, there is a sign on the door to this particular room that reads “Visiting Team, Fitness and Wellness Room.”

Again, it’s just a locker room. But it’s inside that a player can go away from his teammates, coaches, media and fans to clear his mind, meditate, talk about his fears with a psychologist.

The 30 teams are required to make this “fitness and well-being” room available to their opponents. This is the league’s new rule regarding sanity, added at the start of this season.

“I’ve (used these rooms) before, but for me it was just for visualization or meditation stuff,” said Love, a former Cavalier who now plays for the Miami Heat. “I don’t believe I’ve ever used it for therapy before or after games because I like to do my therapy away from the arena – and I think most people would say the same.”

According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, one in five Americans will experience a mental illness in any given year, one in five children has experienced a debilitating mental illness at some point in their life, and one in 25 lives with serious mental illness.

To say that some of the NBA’s 450 players need help isn’t singling them out, Gunter said. “These NBA players are people,” she said.

Gunter said players have performance anxiety. They are worried about their next contract. Playing through COVID-19 in 2020 and 2021 has been difficult, just as adjusting to Zoom calls and working from home has been difficult for many of us, she said.

The difference between them — the big, rich, NBA player facing television four nights a week — and the rest of us, Gunter said, is that so much of their lives take place in the eyes. public. They are criticized by hundreds of media, thousands of fans in the armchairs and millions on social networks. The pain they may feel because of something personal may feel like a shot drop or missed defensive mission, or frustration with a referee.

“People think (NBA players) can just pump fame, or pump money, or pump Twitter followers into their lives and it’ll make it all better,” Love said. “But unfortunately, brains and souls just don’t work that way. If you have a chemical imbalance, it’s not going to help.

Love, 34, is in his 15th pro season. His charitable foundation, which bears his name, provides a free social-emotional learning program to schools and nonprofits across the United States, to help address the youth mental health crisis.

Love said in his final seasons in Cleveland — he received a buyout of the final year of his $120 million, four-year contract from the Cavs in February and signed with the Heat — many young players joined him to often meet with team psychologist Mayur Pandya once or twice a month, not only to deal with mental illness, but also to talk about performance anxiety related to high-level work.

During his interview with AthleticismLove looked at the recent examples of Gordon and Brooks, and the gift of Antetokounmpo, and agreed that the things he and DeRozan said about themselves years ago probably got more players to share their feelings. easier.

Love said he couldn’t say whether or not today’s players are collectively happier than they were when he entered the league. He said there is “certainly a strong emotionality” that took place in a league that was “emotion phobic”.

“Not many guys choose to be vulnerable,” Love said. “You look at that Memphis team, it’s a team that we don’t like because they’re tough and they’re physical and that kind of stuff. But for them to say they have that type of problems and they’re willing to work on it, then it becomes a superpower. Like, ‘you can’t use me against me.’ You know what I mean? They’re going to have these breakdowns, but what really matters is the other side.

(Illustration: Eamonn Dalton / Athleticism; Photos: Mitchell Leff, Dylan Buell, Casey Sykes/Getty Images)

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