If you want to excel at basketball, you don’t wait until game time to ask, “how does this dribbling and shooting stuff work” or “what’s with the big orange ball?” Similarly, if you want to excel at life, why would you wait for a crisis to happen before talking about and addressing mental health?
Talking about mental health used to be like talking about Fight Club. In the past, many people seemed to treat mental health more like a toilet plunger. Mentioning either may have suggested that something was already going wrong. After all, you typically don’t run out into a party and say, “where’s the plunger, where’s the plunger,” without getting quizzical looks and more questions.
However, in recent years, different people and organizations including the National Basketball Association (NBA) and the NBA Players Association (NBAPA) have been proactively trying to change this narrative. They’ve been trying to emphasize the need to discuss mental health and wellness well before any issues and crises emerge. In fact, the NBA and NBAPA have already integrated such topics into their Rookie Transition Program (RTP). Year-after-year since 1986, the NBA RTP has helped players entering the league for the first time make that giant leap from college and other settings. This year, over 60 players attended the RTP from August 7 to 12, which was held in Las Vegas along with the 2021 MGM Resorts NBA Summer League.
If you’ve never heard of the RTP, that’s probably because you’ve never ever come close to making the NBA. The odds of any given basketball player making the NBA may be significantly lower than your odds of being born with 11 fingers or toes. So NBA rookies are already in a super-elite group. But that doesn’t mean that they aren’t like every day people either, albeit on average taller every day people. “Professional athletes are known for the extraordinary things that they do on the court,” NBA Mind Health Director Kensa Gunter, PsyD, CC-AASP explained. “There’s the idea that they are superhuman. Seeing that dominant image might result in the average person not thinking about the players’ lives, not thinking about people navigating relationships and experiencing stress in different ways, not seeing the regular person.”
Mental health and wellness weren’t the only topics covered by the RTP. The formal programming also included a question and answer session with NBA Commissioner Adam Silver, advice panels with NBA players, and a discussion with Houston Rockets coach Stephen Silas as well as discussions on financial management, financial benefits, career development, the safety of players and their families, and social justice. Nevertheless, Days 2 and 3 of the week covered mental well-being and healthy relationships. This included a session with Gunter, NBPA Mental Health Director William Parham, Ph.D., ABPP, and Phoenix Suns player Cam Johnson.
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This years session had heightened meaning. Like a gigantic vacuum cleaner, the Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic has uncovered a lot of the existing mental health challenges that our society has been facing for years. “The pandemic heightened awareness of mental health,” said Gunter. “It made many realize that many different factors can affect mental health and the importance of proactively taking care of mental health.” And while many athletic programs around the country have focused on the body, they haven’t always focused on the head, which hasn’t quite made sense. After all, the head is attached to the body, at least, it should be.
So are fingers to a hand. When considering athletic performance, Parham used the analogy of a hand and how all fingers are needed to make a fist. “The small finger represents physical health and wellness,” he described. “The ring finger is nutrition health and wellness, the middle finger is restorative sleep and rest, the pointer finger is looking at the playbook and going over the game, and the thumb is mental health.”
For the NBA and the NBPA, bringing mental health more to the forefront hasn’t been a Covid-19 pandemic-only enterprise. The RTP sessions were only part of a larger movement to bring more attention to and address mental health. Back in April 2018, the NBA launched the Mind Health initiative to bring mental health conversations more to the forefront and help players, staff, youth and fans access mental health professionals and resources.
Parham mentioned some other NBAPA-initiated efforts as well. For example, former NBA player Keyon Dooling, who was a guard in the league from 2000 to 2013, helped put together a 5-point program to meet the mental health needs of the players. This program included creating a directory of licensed mental health professionals, establishing a mental health literacy program, implementing a touchpoint program to check in with players to see how they are doing, building very specific relationships with journalists to help “address this notion of stigma, reframing in narrative of mental health and wellness,” and putting together a podcast to help others hear stories of successfully managing mental health challenges.
During the 2019-2020 season, the NBA further upped their game, so to speak, by implementing a set enhanced mental health guidelines and requirements for all NBA teams to follow. This included ensuring that each team make one to two licensed mental health professionals available to players and put in place a “written action plan” of how to deal with mental health emergencies. Plus, teams had to tell players and staff members how teams would protect their privacy and confidentiality throughout. Moreover, each team had to identify a licensed psychiatrist (M.D. or D.O.) who could assist with any player mental health issues that may emerge.
Along the way, NBA players have become more vocal about sharing some of their mental health challenges. For example, as I covered for Forbes back in 2018, Cleveland Cavaliers star forward Kevin Love went public about his experiencing a panic attack during a game and then-Toronto Raptor star swingman DeMar DeRozan revealed his struggles with depression.
In January 2020, the NBA brought Dr. Gunter on board to oversee the NBA’s Mind Health and its network of mental health professionals. She has since helped grow Mind Health across various NBA and WNBA programs.
But then along came something called the Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic, which disrupted basketball at all levels, including the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), NBA, and Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) seasons. All of this prompted the NBA in January 2021 to update their mental health guidelines to account for the potentially greater levels of stress and anxiety that players and staff may be facing as a result of the pandemic. This furthered the emphasis of the NBA and NBAPA in being proactive rather than reactive about mental health. “Conversations about mental health and emotional wellness need to be front and center,” Gunter emphasized. “They’re part of overall health. It’s OK to not be OK. Sometimes people think if you are performing well, that means everything else is going well.”
Someday, for everyone in our society, talking about mental health may become as commonplace as coaches and players talking about learning and practicing basketball. It’s not great idea to wait until you need something to learn about it. After all, a real basketball game is not the time to ask “should I dribble with my mouth or hands”, “when should I punt the ball” or “where the heck is that plunger?”