Lifting the Stigma

As more athletes speak out about their mental health struggles, sports organizations broaden their efforts and devote more resources to offer help.

By Mark J. Burns
Getty Images / Photo Illustration by Liz Spangler

Ian Happ entered his first year of professional baseball in mid-2015, months after his father, Keith, was diagnosed with brain cancer the previous December. The gravity of the situation, coupled with Happ’s distance from his family in Columbus as he played in Oregon for the Eugene Emeralds, a short-season Class A affiliate of the Chicago Cubs, tested Happ to the point where he needed help.

“That was the first year that I really had to address my own mental health and figure out how to cope with that every day,” said the 26-year-old Happ, now an outfielder with the Cubs, in an interview with Sports Business Journal.

With Keith declining, Happ’s older brother, Chris, first introduced to him meditation and mindfulness in order to manage the stressors of his father’s health and the external pressures that come with reaching the professional sporting ranks.

That meditation practice has continued for Happ and even evolved with the help of his team. Last year, the Cubs’ mental health skills department introduced Happ to Core, a guided meditation trainer in which a user places his hands on a physical sphere. It tracks pulse and heart rate variability through sensors and a connected app.

“It really helps with the physical reinforcement, and the vibration helps you stay on pace with the breath,” said Happ, who now spends five to 15 minutes each day, including game days, using Core.
For Kyle Guy, the Most Outstanding Player of the 2019 NCAA men’s basketball tournament and current guard for the Sacramento Kings, meditation and writing are his two main “therapeutic” outlets for managing his anxiety, which he acknowledged while attending the University of Virginia.

Early in his college career, Guy developed a weekly cadence of speaking with a licensed sports psychologist. Since the start of his junior season in 2018, Guy said he’s “become better at understanding my own emotions and being able to talk with close friends or family members to say how I feel.”

Guy and Happ aren’t alone. From decorated U.S. Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps, the San Antonio Spurs’ DeMar DeRozan and Cleveland Cavaliers’ Kevin Love, to global tennis star Naomi Osaka and American skiing champ Lindsey Vonn, dozens of athletes have spoken publicly in recent years about their own mental health journey, including struggles with anxiety, depression, substance abuse and thoughts of suicide.

Cubs outfielder Ian Happ uses the team’s Core meditation trainer every day.getty images

Elite athletes speaking out publicly about their struggles has not only helped reduce the stigma around players, both amateur and professional, seeking help for one’s mental health, but also it’s amplified the importance and urgency for pro leagues and teams, college entities and other sports-related properties to devote more resources toward health and wellness programming.

“What we’re starting to see is an allowance of athletes to be human,” remarked Dr. Nyaka NiiLampti, vice president of wellness and clinical services at the NFL. “Sports is a microcosm of society, but we as a culture have really promoted this idea of athletes as being superhuman, and in some ways, they’re not allowed to have some of the emotions and the range of emotions that everyone else experiences. What we’re seeing is a little bit of a normalization.”

Dr. Robin Scholefield, a sports psychologist and senior associate athletic director of culture and value-based continuity at USC, said that athletes’ willingness to come out in the public spotlight is helping move the mental health conversation forward in pro sports circles, but teams still “need to do more than hire” a licensed sports psychologist and embed him or her within the organization.
“They need to verbally acknowledge, support and advocate in order to break through the stigma associated with the belief that seeking help is for the weak,” she added. “In fact, it is the opposite. Seeking help is taking responsibility. Taking responsibility is for the strong, and it further helps elite athletes cultivate inner strength.” 

It’s a similar message that Jay Glazer, Fox’s ”NFL Insider,” is also championing at his Hollywood, Calif.-based gym Unbreakable Performance. Glazer, who has been public for years about “living in the gray” with depression and anxiety, hired licensed therapist Suzi Landolphi in April to provide one-on-one services to gym members, many of whom are elite athletes.

“The motto for my gym is we’re going to build you from the inside out,” Glazer said. “I’m really trying to get people to understand that as we start being vulnerable, start asking for help and start telling people what’s going on with us, it’s going to help us an awful lot more.”

In the past 12 months, U.S. pro leagues and sports properties have not only answered the call from athletes to provide a more robust set of health and wellness offerings — especially as it pertains to mental health — but have responded to the current social climate, too. The global coronavirus pandemic, social injustices domestically toward people of color and the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor amid the pandemic, among other Black individuals, have resulted in additional struggles for some in sports.

Organizations like the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee, which was fortunate to receive a $1.5 million gift in September to support mental health programming, has ramped up its health and wellness efforts in noticeable ways.

Kings guard Kyle Guy, who sought counseling in college, manages his anxiety through meditation and writing. getty images

A month following the seven-figure gift from the Rieschel family, who have been supporters of U.S. Olympic athletes since 2013, the USOPC hired Jessica Bartley full time as director of mental health services after nearly a decade of contract work. This past spring, the organization added four more full-time mental health providers, one of whom is solely devoted to USOPC staff.

“The time is right to expand these services,” said Bartley, who noted that there’s been “a shift in society to talk about mental health.”

“I don’t even know that anyone would have been ready to have a full group of mental health providers before now,” she said.

Team USA athletes also now have access to a 150-person mental health registry, vetted individuals such as psychiatrists and psychologists, who have at least five years of experience working with elite athletes. For this year’s Summer Olympics, four designated USOPC mental health officers — who aren’t on Bartley’s staff — will be on the ground in Tokyo, while Bartley’s mental services team in the U.S. plans to shift their hours on a rotational basis. 

A new mental health assessment tool for all U.S. Olympians provided Bartley and her staff a comprehensive baseline of each individual for anxiety, depression, eating disorders, alcohol, substances and sleep. In Tokyo, mindfulness and meditation sessions, educational workshops on sleep and drop-in therapy and individual support will all be offered, she said, though some may still opt for a virtual consultation. 

Organizations also have embraced the shift to online or virtual therapy sessions during the pandemic as a way to serve more people across multiple locations.

“Telehealth has really allowed us to have a continuity of care, and we can continue to work with the athletes across their season,” said Dr. Becky Ahlgren Bedics, vice president of mental health and wellness for the WTA and one of three staffers devoted to mental health assistance for tour players. She cited one WTA clinician who worked with 100 athletes virtually across a 10-week period during the pandemic. For Grand Slams and other marquee tournaments, at least one mental health care provider, like Ahlgren Bedics, is providing on-site care, she added.

A sampling of recent mental health partnerships in sports

■ CalHOPE Crisis Counseling Program, a California-based mental health and wellness initiative funded by FEMA and run by the California Department of Health Care Services, last season became the Los Angeles Kings’ first official helmet partner.
■ Meditation app Calm signed on earlier this year as a sponsor of the Milwaukee Bucks and Portland Trail Blazers through Oak View Group’s Arena Alliance. The package includes digital and social assets, arena signage, logo popups on TV as the shot clock gets to 5 seconds remaining. Calm also partnered with the Big Ten earlier this year and signed LeBron James as an endorser in late 2019.
■ Rise Above the Disorder signed separate partnerships with esports organization eUnited and esports talent agency Evolved to offer mental health services to competitive gamers and content creators. The organization was founded in 2015 by neuroscientist Jason Docton after losing a World of Warcraft teammate to suicide.
■ Sports Video Group and Hazelden Betty Ford partnered to help sports TV staffers struggling with mental health issues.
■ “Every Life is Worth Saving,” known as WORTH, a nonprofit project dedicated to providing support to anyone struggling with an addiction, depression, mental illness, self-harm or thoughts of suicide, partnered with JD Motorsports’ Ryan Vargas earlier this summer.
■ Los Angeles County Department of Military and Veterans Affairs and Department of Mental Health and the Los Angeles Sparks created the Spark the True You program to help Southern California-based women in active duty and female veterans with their “physical, spiritual, emotional, mental health and well-being goals.” — David Broughton

Since joining full time in September, one of the key new measures Ahlgren Bedics and her staff has implemented is further educating and training the massage therapy staff and physiotherapists, who are hands-on with the athletes at each tournament, about how to handle a situation when a player is noticeably shaken or frustrated or when an athlete is having an off day.

Other U.S. pro sports leagues, like the NBA and NFL, also have formalized their position around mental health. The NBA’s Jamila Wideman, senior vice president of player development, said the way the league approaches mental health is recognizing NBA and WNBA players as “people first and athletes second.”

In April 2018, the NBA launched its mental health initiative, Mind Health, which now spans across several properties including the NBA, WNBA, G League and 2K League, among others. In January 2020, the NBA hired Dr. Kensa Gunter to oversee the program, and teams in the NBA and WNBA are required to retain one to two licensed mental health professionals.

The NFL’s joint behavior health agreement with the NFLPA carried over from 2019 into the new 2020 collective bargaining agreement, a pact that requires all 32 clubs to have a mental health clinician available for a minimum of eight to 12 hours a week, according to the NFL’s NiiLampti.

She said that seven franchises currently employ a full-time mental health staffer. For example, Dr. Carrie Hastings is a licensed clinical and sport psychologist and has been working with the Los Angeles Rams for the past four years. This is the first year where she’ll provide two, hourlong, organization-wide mental health education sessions, she said. In June, the Washington Football Team hired psychologist Dr. Barbara Roberts as its director of wellness and clinical services.

Said NiiLampti, “As we’re increasing mental health literacy, what it’s done is it’s giving people permission to try different things to see what works best for them. … Where we’ve seen the greatest increases, is you’re seeing more and more players that are coming into the league already having had access to a sports psychologist and health professional at the university level.”

Adam Neuman, the Big Ten Conference’s chief of staff, strategy and operations and deputy general counsel, recalled a pointed quote from Purdue’s Norbert Elliott, head coach of the track and field and cross country teams.

“I hope in the near future mental treatment will be treated in the same way as a hamstring strain,” Neuman remembers Elliott saying. In late 2019, Neuman made on-campus visits to member institutions like Iowa, Indiana and Minnesota, speaking with student athletes about their priorities. That’s when Elliott’s quote echoed even louder for Neuman.

“It became abundantly clear that mental health and wellness was at the top of their list in terms of issues that needed to be addressed,” said Neuman, adding that “reducing a stigma” around mental health was top of mind with the conference’s strategy. “What are we doing to actually just help people sleep better, be better, feel better?”

Jay Glazer’s Unbreakable Performance gyms brought on licensed therapist Suzi Landolphi.unbreakable performance

That started in December 2019 with the formation of a 32-person Big Ten Mental Health and Wellness Cabinet, featuring representatives from all 14 schools along with conference affiliate members Johns Hopkins and Notre Dame. It marked the first such group of its kind in collegiate athletics. According to Neuman, the cabinet is made up of faculty athletic representatives, senior women administrators, trainers, strength and conditioning coaches, medical directors and other conference personnel, all working together to help “direct traffic on what mental health and wellness should look like” for the Big Ten.

In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, Neuman, Commissioner Kevin Warren, the cabinet and senior conference officials brainstormed immediate opportunities that could serve not only the 9,500-plus student athletes, but the broader athletic community. The group landed on meditation app Calm and offering free use to all players, coaches and staff.

“We needed to find something that was really flexible, that was generous, and that had a lot of depth and meaning to it,” Neuman said. “It dealt with meditation, it dealt with relaxation, it dealt with sleep and it dealt with anxiety.” To date, there’s been more than 300,000 total sessions from Big Ten users on Calm, he said, and the relationship has been extended for another full year into 2022.
The Big Ten and its mental health cabinet are exploring additional opportunities around health and wellness, Neuman explained, including possible programming in the form of podcasts and guest speakers, post-graduation support around wellness for student athletes, and an educational curriculum for coaches to better understand mental health.

Meanwhile, similar to the Big Ten, other sports entities, like the Milwaukee Bucks and Portland Trail Blazers, have leaned into a relationship with Calm, but in more of a sponsorship tie-up. In April, the meditation company signed deals with both franchises through Oak View Group’s Arena Alliance. Similarly, MLS is currently in the final year of a three-year deal with Headspace, another meditation brand.

“You have to evolve with the population you serve,” said Jamil Northcutt, vice president of player engagement at MLS. “Everybody doesn’t always feel like reaching out to a clinician, but they might want to engage in some exploratory things from a mindfulness and meditation perspective on their own that will help them lower anxiety and stress and sleep better.”

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