NFL has been slow to support players’ mental health

With the Buffalo Bills safe, Damar Hamlin went into cardiac arrest and collapsed on the field in the middle of a “Monday Night Football” game in Cincinnati on January 2, Carrie Hastings, half a continent away, understood what she needed. do – and immediately .

“I have a few people that I know right away that I should sign up for,” says Hastings, a sports psychologist and mental health clinician for the Los Angeles Rams. “A couple and significant others too.”

Hastings’ familiarity with Rams employees, and potentially emotionally hurt players after witnessing Hamlin’s shocking medical emergency, is a result of her experience. through six seasons with the club – getting to know the athletes, meeting new recruits when they first arrive, and making her a regular at the Rams facility.

Across the NFL, no such ongoing care exists. The federation is working towards a form of mental health support for its players, coaches and staff, where a range of counseling is standard and accessible.

Just over three years ago, in 2019, the NFL rolled out a official program to manage employee mental health needs. It’s part of a new collective bargaining agreement, after the NFL Players Association strongly pushed for its creation. Among other things, the agreement requires each group to have a licensed behavioral health clinician on staff.

But individual franchises still have great powers in carrying out that directive. Some have full-time sports psychologists; Hastings said others hire part-time clinicians, while some contract with outside providers and deliver them to players. And clinicians are not required to have any sports background, which some sports psychologists consider a serious flaw.

“This is a very specialized area,” said Sam Maniar, a consultant psychologist for the Cleveland Browns and formerly the team’s full-time clinician. “The athletics environment, and especially at the highest level, is something that requires specialization and not every clinician brought into the NFL has that.”

Hastings was a sprinter and hurdler during her college years at Notre Dame, had deep professional experience with athletes and was listed on the Olympic Committee & United States Paralympics in sports psychology and mental training. She keeps her own gym a short drive from the Rams’ training facility in Agoura Hills, northwest of Los Angeles, and although technically a part-time employee, Hastings said she has on-site three or four times a week” and essentially on demand. 24/7 throughout the season.”

With that in mind, Hastings has worked to build a foundation of trust with elite athletes who often think only of a sports psychologist to help them prepare for competition.

“It’s often the case that a player comes in for something performance-related, and that opens the door for conversations in other areas of mental health,” she said. “The relationship is deepening.”

An ingrained presence on teams is crucial, say clinicians, especially as some athletes have begun to talk more openly about the mental and emotional challenges they face. face and have indirectly encouraged their colleagues to be more open to receiving help.

tennis feeling Naomi OsakaOlympic gold medalists Simone Biles and Michael Phelps, NBA stars Kevin love and DeMar DeRozan have both publicly discussed their mental health challenges over the past decade, and some have spearheaded awareness campaigns. “I credit them for discussing their struggles and benefits,” says Maniar, who runs a performing sports center in Ohio and works with college and high school teams. the great benefits they receive from accessing some of the care that is available to them. brown.

The NFL is a tough arena for such conversations. The players in the league were used to overcoming practically any pain and injury as a condition of work, and for most of the league’s existence, its athletes had essentially trained not to get hurt.

The implementation of a federation-wide program, while an important milestone, did not radically accelerate the pace of change. “I think the NFL is still a dinosaur in that respect,” Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers says The New York Times two seasons ago. “There is a stigma around talking about emotions, struggling and dealing with stress. There are many dialects that seem to see that as a weakness.

The Players Association has become more active in solving the problem. “NFL players are often seen as the pinnacle of masculinity, and because taking care of one’s own mental health and seeking support has never been associated with masculinity, too many people in we don’t prioritize that aspect of our health,” union president JC Tretter, an eight-year NFL veteran, wrote in a blog post in 2021 players, encouraging them to take advantage of available resources.

Hamlin’s extremely unusual emergency, in which he required CPR on the field before being transported to the hospital from the Cincinnati stadium where the Bills and Bengals were playing, “really created anxiety. It settles in some players and it activates in others,” Hastings said. In addition to reaching out to some players privately, she sent out a message throughout the Rams organization reminding athletes, coaches and staff that she was available to talk.

“A lot of them have absorbed it,” says Hastings. “The elephant in the room is death. Players know they can get hurt and they’ve all been injured, but this includes an element they have no control over.”

The Bills and Cincinnati Bengals players stood stunned as Hamlin lay on the field. Days later, the Buffalo players are still trying to express their feelings. “The scene plays over and over in your head,” quarterback Josh Allen said at a news conference, trying to hold back tears. “It is difficult to describe how I and my teammates felt at that time. That is something we will never forget.”

Dr Joshua Norman, an Ohio State University sports psychologist who often works with athletes on emotional processing, said: “Hamlin’s further progress included being released hospital for treatment at home, “will help alleviate some of the injuries that players experience”. . “But even though they tried to stop everything, these players witnessed a serious injury. Some of them will have a strong reaction.”

Dr. Claudia Reardon, a psychiatrist at the University of Wisconsin, says the term “indirect trauma” applies in this case. “The initial traumatic event didn’t happen to you personally, but you did experience grief when you witnessed or learned about it,” Reardon said. Reactions range from fear and helplessness to nightmares and flashbacks, she said, and some athletes will try to avoid “people, places, or things that remind them of the injury that they have seen.”

“I wouldn’t be surprised to see some players retire early,” Maniar said. “And the big concern is a player who is hesitant or scared to play. It’s a surefire way to get injured in a sport like football, and this is a tournament where contracts aren’t guaranteed. You’ve heard the saying ‘NFL means not long.’ The players feel that pressure.”

Clinicians say the NFL’s best chance of making big strides in its mental health coverage may stem from the simple fact that they’re constantly drafting and developing new talent. “The younger generation is becoming more sophisticated about mental health,” says Norman. “They come to a university campus often already establishing some connection with their mental health needs, through counseling or other means. They are more open to the idea of ​​dealing with their mental health.”

In the franchise complex, the work continues. Both Hastings and Maniar were hired by their NFL teams years before the league required a clinician, and both make sure they keep an office away from the practice facility for uncomfortable players. feel free to meet them at work. But recently, Hastings said, that is also changing.

“Players are talking about these kinds of issues with each other more often, and they’re doing so very openly,” she said. “In many ways, we have built our mental health process since I was brought in in 2017.” In the NFL, it is proving a slow turnaround.

This story is produced by KHNpublish California Health Linean editorially independent service of California Health Care Foundation.

KHN (Kaiser Health News) is a national newsroom that produces in-depth journalism on health issues. Along with Policy Analysis and Exploration, KHN is one of the three main activities in Vietnam KFF (Kaiser Family Foundation). KFF is a funded non-profit organization that provides information on health issues to the nation.


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