How NBA players are leading the way in mental health: ‘It’s OK to seek help and want help’


NEW YORK — Two nights ago on a humid early evening in midtown Manhattan, Tamika Tremaglio, the executive director of the NBPA, took to the microphone at the organization’s Sixth Avenue office and read a letter from Jerry West. The basketball legend recounted some of the trauma of his youth and the mental health struggles he dealt with in his career and later in life. He suffered in silence until he felt comfortable enough to seek help. Now, he was espousing the benefit of being open.

For so long, discussion of mental health was a taboo in society and certainly in professional sports. Over the last decade, it seems as if that has slowly been stripped away, propelled, in part, by the raw honesty of the NBA’s stars. DeMar DeRozan’s frankness about his struggles with depression and Kevin Love’s admission that he suffered from a panic attack during a game, both occurring five years ago, were a catalyst. It created a permission structure for professional athletes, and the fans who watched them, to more readily discuss their issues and treat them.

Mental health has remained top of mind for the NBA’s players and a topic they have focused on. That commitment was clear Wednesday, as the players union held its inaugural mental health and wellness summit. It was a reiteration of its priority to the players. The event, run by Dr. William D. Parham, the union’s director of the mental health and wellness program, brought in NBA commissioner Adam Silver for a fireside chat with Tremaglio and Cynthia Germanotta, head of the Born This Way Foundation, and an open discussion by Victor Oladipo and CJ McCollum of the importance of mental health.

Tremaglio said the summit was created out of a desire by the union’s executive committee to keep the issue at the forefront for not only players but others, too. It has been a priority for the committee for several years, she said.

They wanted to make sure that we were still a voice that was out there that was talking about it and the significance of it,” Tremaglio said. “And as we head into this new season, it was really critically important that we talked about it now so that people could start to tell their stories and feel comfortable doing it as the season starts.”

The event, held over two days this week, wasn’t just for NBA players; there were only a few seen there Wednesday. It was meant to help others talk about mental health and hear from experts. McCollum, the union president, said he hoped it could help make mental health easier to talk about, not just in the league, and to get over the reluctance to do so.

“I think it’s more so our communities; the communities that a lot of us come from,” McCollum said. “Black communities have historically been hesitant — and most communities have historically been hesitant — to speak to people about their problems in general from a comfort standpoint. But I think a lot of people are doing it and a lot of people are talking about it and slowly more professional athletes are beginning to speak out about the fact that they are seeking help and that it’s been helpful and beneficial to their lifestyle, their career and what they want to accomplish on and off the floor.

“But I think there is an uptick in people not only talking about it — hence the conversation today — but people using it. You just aren’t hearing about it as often, right? You hear stories here or there but then if you ask the locker room, you know that more guys are doing it now (and) becoming more comfortable with sharing.”

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NBA commissioner Adam Silver, Born This Way Foundation president Cynthia Germanotta and NBPA executive director Tamika Tremaglio hold a fireside chat during the NBPA’s mental health and wellness conference in New York. (Photo courtesy of NBPA)

McCollum admitted during the night that there is still some hesitation by players to discuss their mental health among one another, but he believes that is slowly melting away. He talks to a therapist and has been an outspoken advocate for finding outposts for help. For him, those discussions are a sounding board on how to handle the various pressures in his life.

The biggest stresses, he said, are not the game itself but everything else around it. There is the uncertainty that comes with injury — when the sport is suddenly taken away — or when there is a trade or the very public nature of the job. And there is the uniqueness of their position.

Often, as in his case, he said, no one else in their family or social circle has experienced the kind of wealth and success they have, and there is no one to talk about the problems that come with it. That only increased the need to find someone who can help.

“I think it’s extremely important because we go through all these emotions of the game and our life that sometimes we don’t know how to deal with it,” he said. “If you’re the first generation millionaire — some of us are the first generation millionaires — or you’re the first generation graduated from college, whatever the case may be, I’m a professional athlete. No one’s ever experienced that before, so they don’t know what comes with it. So who do you talk to you about your issues, if no one can relate to the issues?

“I think sometimes your thoughts are right, sometimes your thoughts aren’t, and being able to talk to a professional, gives you advice, but also can be a roadmap or guide that hey, these feelings that you’re feeling are OK., they’re acceptable, accept them for what they are, and then figure out how to move forward. They can also be a sounding board for ways to handle things that are happening in your life.”

The NBPA has procedures in place to help players as well. There is a mental health team in place that’s available to players when they need someone to speak with.

Tremaglio calls it a triage team. It’s led by Parham but also includes Michael Grinnell, an NBPA player wellness counselor, and Derek Anderson, the former NBA veteran now a player wellness counselor for the union. They are available to talk to players or help them find someone who can help.

The goal of the summit, McCollum said, was to bring these issues out in the open, and to have the talk in public with whoever they can, not just players but with their communities, too.

“It’s become more acceptable,” he said. “It’s become more noteworthy in terms of people, players, high profile figures speaking up about things that they’re battling that people may not have been aware of before. I think the storytelling aspect is great because it allows people to better understand that this is happening for lots of people, and it’s OK to seek help and want help.”

(Top photo of CJ McCollum: Chris Gardner / Getty Images)





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