As Players Open Up, the NBA Tackles Mental Health

In recent years, several NBA All-Stars have spoken about their mental health struggles. Even the league’s own commissioner remarked on how surprised he was by the level of anxiety and unhappiness he has observed in the players.

This past summer, unease around the league may have come to a head: The NBA announced a series of mandatory mental health guidelines to address these burgeoning issues. These guidelines will require that teams have at least one licensed mental health professional on their full-time staff, retain a licensed psychiatrist to be available when necessary, and have specific action plans codified in writing for mental health emergencies.

To understand what a change of direction this is for the NBA, one only needs to look back to 2012, when a young player named Royce White was drafted in the first round of the lottery. White was very transparent about having generalized anxiety disorder and how it might affect his ability to travel and participate in other aspects of playing in the league. Despite showing considerable promise, he was soon out of the NBA, the victim of what he considers a league-wide blackballing for having a mental health condition.

Medscape spoke with Jennifer Carter, PhD, director of sports psychology at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, about the NBA’s evolving stance on mental health initiatives and how they may benefit nonprofessional athletes as well.

It’s been less than a decade since Royce White was drafted, yet in the intervening years the NBA seems to be applying a much more responsible approach to addressing mental health in its players. What’s changed?

Awareness of mental health (in general and in sports) has increased, while stigma has decreased. One reason for these changes is the bravery of athletes like Royce White to blaze a path of honesty and helping others.

Risk factors include…stunted identity development in which there is a lack of balance in their lives due to the consuming nature of their sport.

Athletes have always had mental health disorders, but the athletic culture of invulnerability has discouraged them from talking about them in public. Hopefully, we will keep improving our understanding of mental health disorders as increasingly common human issues instead of as secret or shameful signs of weakness.

Prominent NBA players such as Kevin Love and DeMar DeRozan have spoken out about their struggles. We’ve heard such things from retired players, but it seems somewhat new for those who are still actively playing to do so. Do you think this reflects something unique about the NBA, its players, and what they face? Or is this probably similar to what high-profile athletes in other sports are also experiencing?

Mental health resources have grown across professional sports and college sports, particularly in the past 5 years. NBA players probably experience mental health disorders at similar rates to other professional athletes, but it does seem like a good number of NBA players have come forward with their struggles recently. To speak about mental health issues while actively playing is especially courageous.