Sports Have Succeeded By Not Addressing Mental Health
William D. Parham, PhD, ABPP, Professor, Counselling Program Loyola Marymount University Director, Mental Health & Wellness Program National Basketball Players Association
“This depression get the best of me...”
Tweeted DeMar DeRozan, an otherwise hugely successful professional US basketballer at the peak of his career. His words helped to trigger a change in the culture of the sport, as he and fellow NBA basketballers, Kevin Love and Kelly Oubre, opened up about their own mental struggles. Soon after, the National Basketball Players’ Association announced the appointment of William Parham, Ph.D., ABPP as its first-ever director of mental health and wellness.
Here, he explains, why the psychological scars of sport stars have been swept under the carpet for so long.
Sport hasn’t missed the issue of the mental wellbeing of its athletes.
“I’m the director of a program which, to my knowledge, is the first of its kind here in America within professional sport organizations. It came on the heels of three athletes who have been very public within the last three years about their struggles: Kevin Love, DeMar DeRozan and Kelly Oubre. Evidence of mental health and wellness struggles of other athletes, including those in prior generations, are coming to light.
The Players’ Association was asked to provide more support and they responded to the voice of their players and I was honored to become its first mental health director. We’ve made a lot of progress since the time of my appointment, May 2018, and other professional sport organizations, including but not limited to the United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee (USOPC), have followed suit and begun to address mental health and wellness.
But let me also say something that may a little controversial. I'm not convinced that sport organizations and elite sport systems across the globe have failed through the years to address mental health and wellness topics.
Look around you today, and you’ll find more and more organizations coming out and saying: ‘We missed it! We failed. We’ve got to do better at this.’ While seemingly believable, I am not convinced that this observation is accurate.
Sports systems haven’t failed at addressing mental health and wellness issues at all. The opposite is true: due to several factors, not the least of which are experiences stigma, they have just succeeded in not addressing it.
Our goal with the NBA Players’ Association is to make this the pre¬eminent comprehensive mental health and wellness program in professional sports and we have a five-part plan to do it, including:
a directory of licensed clinicians in each city where there’s an NBA team.
a 24-hour crisis line that players can access for mental health issues.
a mental health and wellness literacy program aimed at players. building relationships with players.
and strengthening our relationships with the media.
“The long held rules of how to succeed are changing.”
The Importance of the Chip
A lot of performers and elite athletes have issues that they need to work on and they often use the back stories of their lives to convert their unreconciled feelings into what we call ‘the chip’ or ‘the edge’ and they are masterful in how they do that. They channel that energy into developing their athletic talents and in some cases, they can channel that energy into earning recognition as being among the best to have ever played the game.
These Olympians and elite athletes are at the top of their game, but once you start having success at such a high level, many also begin to wonder if they really want to start talking about these issues. Often, their lived experiences suggests that they have done pretty well without ever talking about past stories so they reason that there is no current reason to start unraveling experiences they would like to forget.
There are a lot of elite athletes who are on the upper end of this continuum of mental health and wellness. These are the athletes who are doing quite well, managing their lives and don't really have a lot of personal baggage. They have learned how to balance all aspects of their lives and may even have a game plan for their transition after their sport career has come to an end. So, I wouldn’t want you to think that all athletes are trapped in dark spaces of unresolved personal conflicts. Many are not, but some are!
What’s In Your Luggage?
One of the most compelling pieces of research comes from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention/Kaiser Permanente Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) study, an investigation of 17,500 subjects designed to get a better understanding between early life adverse childhood experiences and later adult life medical issues.
It’s one of the largest investigations of childhood abuse and neglect and household challenges and later-life health and well-being. It found that those exposed to poverty, violence and all forms of emotional and physical abuse in childhood, can suffer from everything from neural deficiency to early death in later life as a result.
It shows that if you were to choose 100 people at random, two thirds of them would have had from one to four adverse childhood experiences emanating from one or more of 13 different categories ranging from physical, sexual, emotional abuse, being in dysfunctional families, alcoholism, neglect, bullying.
Most of us grew up believing that it's not okay to talk about our personal baggage and that's unfortunate because everybody has baggage. There are only two questions that need to be answered: How many pieces of luggage do you have? And, what's packed inside each bag?
Everybody has something, but we have been incentivized to keep our private lives to ourselves. This observation hold true globally and is experienced even more stringently within the context of cultural. There are certain cultural communities that say: ‘No, you just don't air the linen.’ People want to be accepted, they want to be honored, they want to be connected, they want to be good citizens so don't talk about their personal secrets, but the issues are nonetheless present and can feel burdensome.
The feelings that emerge in response to childhood trauma become indelibly etched in our memories, in what I call ‘invisible tattoos.’ These are things that people don’t want to talk about or revisit. As people grow up, particularly in a society that incentivized us not to talk about deeper personal matters, people find themselves carrying that burden around and nobody knows about it until something happens in the world that blows away personal safeguards of protection at which point the previously packed away secrets begin to surface.
The most recent example is Covid-19, which by itself has stretched people’s emotional bandwidth to the limit, increasing depression anxieties, domestic abuse and economic strain. The magnitude of unprecedented experiences such as COVID-19 and the co-occurring pandemic of racism can trigger past events that subsequently position people to feel helpless or hopeless. And when past unreconciled issues and struggles emerge it can be quite distressing, manifested in many forms including fear, sadness, depression, post-traumatic stress, or rage.
I see the media as part a key part of our mental health and wellness program. The conversation around mental health has become exponentially different in the last couple of years, and while the media cannot solve issues, they can be central to raising questions.
It’s the same in the US, as in Australia and across the continents of Europe, Africa and Asia. Until now, a lot of us have accepted status quo beliefs about how best to achieve some measure of successes.
It is becoming increasingly clear that the long-held rules of how to succeed are changing to include acknowledging and appreciating the value inherent in finding ways to navigate past experiences. It’s time that for a different narrative to be investigated and asserted.
Irrespective of one’s sport or occupation, mental health and wellness should always be at the table of conversation.