As More Athletes Speak Up About Mental Health, The NBA Hopes Fans Take Note, Too

A new rule mandates that every team keep mental health professionals on staff

By Lauren Rearick

When the National Basketball Association resumes its regular season on October 22, 2019, it won’t be without major changes to how the league approaches how it supports the mental health of its players.

The NBA has unveiled a series of mental health guidelines set to be implemented before the 2019-2020 season, The Athletic reported, but, according to HuffPost the NBA has made continued attempts to offer mental health support to its players since 2015. Initially, a clinical psychologist was made available to speak with teams and staff as needed, and in 2018, the league created a mental health and wellness program aimed at offering outside support for the employees who net it astronomical amounts of revenue each season.

This new set of guidelines, which were shared in a reported memo to teams and obtained by The Athletic, requires all 30 teams in the NBA to have one to two mental health professionals and a licensed psychiatrist on staff. Additionally, teams will reportedly be required to create a plan for mental health emergencies. The planned changes will reportedly be discussed further on September 12, when the NBA holds a league-wide meeting regarding the guidelines.

This isn’t the first time the NBA has been at the forefront of offering mental health support to professional athletes, and other leagues have adopted similar measures. In May, the NFL announced a series of mental health initiatives, the Boston Red Sox announced its own mental health department, and the WNBA provides a FIT program, targeted at improving mental wellbeing.

As Victor Schwartz, a clinical associate professor of psychiatry at NYU School of Medicine and an advisor on mental health to the NBA told MTV News, athletes, regardless of what sport they play, experience continued daily pressure. “Given the demands on these players, and their challenging schedules and difficulty with privacy, having opportunities to meet with mental health clinicians on site, just as players can get on the spot support from trainers and team doctors for physical pain and injury, will promote healthy and hopefully even more successful player performance,” Schwartz said. “It is both forward-thinking and sensible for the league leadership to make this a part of the care and support system for players.”

In the past, players including Kevin Love of the Cleveland Cavaliers, Stephen Curry from the Golden State Warriors, and Kelly Oubre, Jr. of the Phoenix Suns have opened up about their struggles with mental health. And as Don Mordecai, national leader for mental health and wellness with Kaiser Permanente, the official healthcare partner of the NBA, explained to MTV News, the groundswell of athletes speaking out about mental health could go a long way in reducing continued mental health stigma.

“It’s great when the teams say, ‘We want a total healthcare team for our teams, and that includes mental and physical health,’” Mordecai said. “That normalizes it in a way that’s really helpful, and you’re sitting at home now, thinking, ‘If Kevin Love can get treatment, and Metta World Peace got help...maybe it’s OK for me, too.’”

The Executive Vice President and Chief Communications Officer of the Cleveland Cavaliers, Tad Carper, also shared his admiration for work by players like Love, and for the league’s decision to set forth planned guidelines. “These are important and impactful programs and guidelines from the NBA,” he told MTV News. “We’re happy to support the efforts and understand and appreciate the need and benefits involved.”

“At the same time, we’re very proud that Kevin has been at the forefront of this landscape and been such a strong catalyst for change,” Carper added. “The awareness that he has championed, and continues to inspire, transcends basketball and we’re eager to see the continued progress.” In March 2018, Love had published an article in the Player’s Tribune which opens by detailing his experience with a panic attack, and how, “For 29 years, I thought about mental health as someone else’s problem” before he eventually sought help.

The resulting mental health issues that can possibly arise with the demands of life as an athlete go beyond just those participating on a professional level. Kristen Mackel, the lead clinical counselor for Pitt Athletics at the University of Pittsburgh, told MTV News the school unveiled its own mental health counseling program in 2018. As part of the program, two mental health counselors are employed full-time to meet with students.

“It’s really important they have a place where they can come and talk through a situation,” Mackel said. “One of the things that we really try and get across as our message is that it's preventative care.” She said that she often encourages athletes to seek out treatment, and explained that she tells students to view “brain health, mental health, and wellness as no different than your physical health.”

It will ultimately remain to be seen how the NBA’s guidelines will potentially impact its players, but Mackel said it could likely inspire others closely watching the league. “If you see the person who was on the poster in your bedroom or that has the career you want to have someday as being human and taking care of their body and brain, that allows you to explore that as a possible option,” she said. “You know that you don't have to do it all yourself, that there are professionals out there that can help.”