The NFL Takes Steps Toward Better Mental Health Care for Sports Professionals

Earlier this month, the NFL and NFL Players Association announced that they require every team employ a licensed behavioral health clinician. This is the latest in the relationship between the NFL and Cigna; a relationship that began in 2012 to better offer resources for mental health care. The initiative requires a mental health professional on site in every team building for a minimum of 8-12 hours a week (NFL). According to the American Psychological Association, the initiative stems from a “growing recognition of the need for a holistic approach to athletes’ health” (APA). On-site professionals will help “…coordinate [care]… help educate and diagnose as needed,” according to an article from ESPN.

“Sports and medical professionals agree – taking care of your mental health is just as important as your physical health. Optimal performance requires a strong body and mind.” –NFL Total Wellness Playbook

Mental health care is still stigmatized in many communities, especially for men. There are a number of challenges unique to professional athletes that can affect their mental health, including constant public scrutiny and careers cut short by injury or decreased performance. The career also requires extensive traveling and high-stakes contract negotiation. This can cause relationship and family issues, aggravate or trigger addictions, and even lead to depression or suicide.

The NFL Total Wellness Playbook does not shy away from the severe problems that can arise when mental health is ignored (Playbook). The NFL Life Line is the first resource listed on their website, as well, offering “24-hour, free, confidential and independently operated resource with trained counselors to help individuals in crisis, online and at (800) 506-0078. The service is available to the entire NFL family — active players, Legends, coaches, team and league staff, and their family members” (NFL).

Chris Carr, PhD, is a team performance psychologist and behavioral health clinician for one NFL team. Due to the distinctive nature of an NFL career, Carr believes that providers should train specifically in sport psychology. Unfortunately, they’ve witnessed what happens when providers fail to do so: “…clinicians enter sport environments with very little understanding of team culture [and]… they just further stigmatize our role” (APA).

Time to Talk About It

Carr is only part of the integrative team that already supports players’ physical health, a team that includes medical professionals addressing diet, exercise, and medical management. Post-initiative, that team now offers both general and specialized mental health professionals, as well. Carr teaches team members “…skills such as goal setting, managing pre-performance anxiety and refocusing in the face of distractions.” He also offers training for coaches and team personnel to recognize identifying factors of anxiety, depression, and substance misuse.

Carr commented on the positive change intended by the new initiative. “It takes mental health out of the shadows and elevates the clinician as an important part of each organization’s success…” (APA). Sport psychologist Bradley Hack, PhD, believes that success requires “…a visible presence with the team in group settings”, as well as the ability to navigate a variety of personal and professional relationships (APA). On-site mental health specialists, working with NFL players and other staff every week, will have more opportunity to understand both the issues and relationships first-hand.

Psychologist Nyaka NiiLampti, PhD, is the NFL’s vice president of wellness and clinical services. They explain that the new initiative will help “…allow teams to move away from a crisis-management approach … to one that focuses on prevention and early intervention…we know that the health of the players is tied to the health of the entire organization, so our ultimate goal is to continue expanding the focus to help change an entire culture” (APA).

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