ESPN Takes a Closer Look at Mental Health Problems in the NBA

The secret’s out: the world of professional sports struggles with mental illness.

Until now, mental illness was something you didn’t talk about if you were a star athlete. It didn’t matter if you dealt with depression or anxiety or ADD. A mental illness was seen as a weakness, and if there’s one thing a professional athlete can’t be, it’s weak.

At least, that’s what we’ve been told.

But the truth is, it takes strength to admit you’re struggling with something. And as Kevin Love recently said, everyone is struggling with something.

Since Love’s announcement that he’s been battling with anxiety, players across the NBA have begun to speak up about their own struggles while demanding change in how mental health is viewed in professional sports.

Last week, ESPN posted a series of articles, each one highlighting a different aspect of mental health in the NBA. We’ve put together a brief recap of each, though each article is well worth reading.

Admitting There’s a (Mental Health) Problem

It might seem easy for a player with tens of thousands of fans who makes millions of dollars to say whatever they want. But when it’s something that could compromise the future of their career, it becomes much more difficult.

Earning any spot in the NBA takes an incredible amount of work that starts as soon as you can walk and hold a ball. Even if you manage to make it, there are zero guarantees you’ll stay. Especially if you’re viewed as unstable or inconsistent.

Having issues off the court is manageable. But if your struggles have any chance of affecting how you play, you can quickly find yourself on the bench or off the team altogether.

This is environment players like Demar DeRozan and Kevin Love have played their entire careers in. Yet, despite the stakes, they both reached a point this past year where they had to say something. Thanks to their courage to do so, change has already been taking place these past few months.

The NBA Player association has hired Dr. William Parham as their first-ever director of mental health and wellness. The association is also working with the NBA’s commissioner to establish a proper mental health policy. Confidentiality is being set as a top priority.

Since DeRozan and Love’s announcements, many other players, both past and present, have shared how mental illness has affected their lives on and off the court.

photo by Alex Perez

Mental Health in the NBA’s Black Community

“You got respect in our neighborhood by killing someone. That’s how messed up it was. We were just trying to survive every day.”

Marcus Morris and his brother Markieff are highly successful, professional basketball players today.  But growing up in North Philadelphia, they weren’t sure they’d make it out of their teens.

In ESPN’s second article on mental health, both of the Morris brothers share their struggles with depression and other issues that stem from a fractured childhood. Though they’ve made it out of the streets physically, the mind doesn’t easily forget.

Sadly, this situation isn’t unique to the Morris brothers.

“If you grow up in the inner city, you have to walk a certain way, and you have to talk a certain way,” says DeMar DeRozan. “If a guy walks past you, you gotta make sure you don’t show any type of weakness, so they won’t mess with you.”

As much as professional athletes have to show a degree of toughness, that expectation is amplified for those who grew up in rough neighborhoods.

The article notes a 2001 study by the surgeon general that showed African-Americans are more prone to encounter mental health challenges due to historic inequality, racism, discrimination, poverty, and violence.

Currently, the NBA is made up of nearly 75% African American players.

Medicating Professional Athletes

Modern medicine can provide treatment for many mental illnesses, but it often comes at a cost. The next story from EPSN starts off with highlighting Shane Larkin, a 25-year-old point guard who has played in both the NBA and EuroLeague.

Larkin has struggled with obsessive compulsive disorder since he was a small child. As he got older, his habits and fears worsened. Finally, he was put on antidepressants. Though they helped curb some OCD symptoms, they also killed his drive and energy to play the game.

He soon dropped the meds.

Professional sports require maximum performance. Prescription pills are powerful drugs that change your body’s chemical balance, which in turn can affect your physical actions. Of course, that’s not the only reason why prescription drugs should be seen as a last resort.

Dr. William Parham, the psychologist that was chosen by the NBA players association to oversee mental health needs says, “Too often, medication is treating the symptoms, not the real issues.”

For those with severe conditions such as bi-polar, medication may be necessary. But counseling and therapy should always be the first step.

The Mental Pressures of an NBA Ref

Though they’re well paid and spend their time around some of the world’s most famous athletes, the life of a professional referee is anything but glamorous.

Simply by doing your job, you are hated on by thousands of people surrounding you at any given game, not to mention many more viewers at home.

Refs will be yelled at, threatened, and treated as less than a person at every game they work. And this is why ESPN’s fourth article focuses on the psychological pressures that referees face.

While keeping often hot-headed players in line, refs are expected to keep their cool no matter what happens. They can’t lash out or hold a vendetta, or they’ll quickly find themselves without a job.

After being suspended, famed NBA referee Joey Crawford was ordered by then commissioner David Stern to attend counseling. Though initially hesitant, Crawford would soon find healing and clarity from his sessions.

Crawford credits his counselor for saving his job.

photo by Steve Halama

The Future of Mental Health in the NBA

When a star college athlete struggles to compete on the professional level, the blame is often placed on their mentality rather than their physicality. They fail to handle the pressure, scrutiny, expectations, and massive audiences.

Professional sports, in their own way, challenge the mind as much as the body. A player’s emotions take a beating just like their body does. Whereas physical damage is easy to see and quick to be treated, mental struggles can go unnoticed for a long time.

But as ESPN highlights in their last article, there are positive signs of change in the future of the NBA.

In addition to the new mental health policies that are being formed, many young athletes are entering the league with a better awareness of mental health. And schools like Oklahoma State are creating mental wellness programs for their student-athletes.

The hope is that we’ll soon see a league filled with players who are just as strong mentally as they are physically.

Mental Health Issues Don’t Care About Your Financial Status

It’s easy to think that if you could just get that dream job or make enough money, your internal struggles will go away.

But with the wave of NBA players opening up about mental illness, along with the tragic and shocking celebrity suicides we’ve seen recently, it has become increasingly clear that mental illness extends beyond social or economic standing.

Mental health improves when it receives proper attention. The first step is as simple as talking to a friend or family member. But ultimately, a professional may be needed for some people. If you find yourself wrestling with something that won’t go away, and you’re not sure what to do, seek professional counsel.

To find a Christian counselor that specializes in your needs, try Torrch. It’s free to use, and you can start now.

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