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NBA, players to address stigma of mental health

From ESPN - March 19, 2018

LOS ANGELES -- Larry Sanders does not watch a lot of television, but, from time to time, when he comes across an NBA game, he says he can easily identify players who are dealing with mental health issues.

"I am not sure it's obvious to everyone,'' Sanders said, "but I know the signs.''

Sanders was once a young, rising NBA star whose elite defensive skills earned him a four-year, $44 million contract with the Milwaukee Bucks in August 2013. He was long, active and athletic on the court, yet his physical gifts could not offset the anxiety and depression that eventually consumed him.

He chose to self-medicate with marijuana to alleviate his anxiety and isolation. That led to four violations of the NBA substance abuse program, two suspensions and the stunning decision to walk away from pro basketball in 2015 at age 26. Sanders checked himself into Rogers Memorial Hospital in Wisconsin and enrolled in a program to combat anxiety, depression and mood disorders. Before he did, he posted a video on the Players' Tribune detailing his struggles.

Recent public revelations by current players Channing Frye, DeMar DeRozan and Kevin Love about grappling with mental health issues has naturally captured Sanders' attention. So has news that the league and the union are formulating a more robust mental health program to address the needs of its players.

League and union sources confirm that once the new, more comprehensive mental health program is unveiled, it will function as its own entity, extricated from the league's drug policy.

Both league and union officials concur that having mental health lumped in with the substance abuse policy was a deterrent to players who needed and wanted help with mental health concerns.

Sanders says this is a huge step forward. His struggles, he says, were exacerbated by his drug suspensions, which under the collective bargaining agreement required him to receive drug treatment when what he really was seeking was assistance with his mental wellness. As a result, he says, his "treatment" felt punitive instead of therapeutic.

"It was very frustrating,'' Sanders said. "They were dealing with the byproduct [marijuana], not the issue. There was lots of chastising for the byproduct instead of digging in and investigating the cause.''

League and union officials have been working together for more than a year to destigmatize mental health issues. According to both camps, there will be an announcement in the coming months to name a director of health and wellness.

While significant progress has been made, some formidable obstacles remain, including the thorny subject of confidentiality. Some NBA owners, who have invested millions of dollars in their players, believe they should have the right to access the medical files of their athletes, including their mental health reports.

Michele Roberts, executive director of the National Basketball Players Association, says initial discussions on how to shape mental wellness going forward involved "very little pushback on the concept of confidentiality.''

"But the devil is always in the detail,'' Roberts told ESPN. "As we began to talk about what this would look like, and what we could actively communicate to the players, there were some conflicts.

"Every team has an interest in knowing about the well-being of their players both in terms of their physical and mental health. We understand that. But that does not mean the players' privacy can be waived or compromised. Now, if a player is unable to perform because of his issues, that opens up a different discussion.

"But, short of that, our position is none of our players' business is the team's business as long as they perform.''

The Los Angeles Lakers experienced the very public and poignant mental wellness battles of forward Ron Artest, who, after sparking the Lakers to a championship in 2010, eloquently expressed his gratitude to his psychologist. He has since changed his name to Metta World Peace and has become a fierce advocate for mental health awareness. That experience, says Lakers owner Jeanie Buss, has enabled her team to be proactive in tackling mental wellness.

"We have invested in all these state-of-the-art facilities and cryogenic chambers, hydro pools and all that, but we have not focused on mental health,'' Buss said. "That's the next level of care.''

The Lakers have partnered with UCLA to provide myriad mental health options for their players and, Buss says, they have guaranteed them full confidentiality.

"[The players] have to feel their conversations will be private,'' Buss says. "They need to feel safe about going outside the team to find solutions. We, as owners, have to navigate this the right way."

Both the league and the union offer mental wellness services for all players, but there is no uniform mental health platform across team lines. Teams can spend lavishly on mental wellness or only provide bare-bones services. Some teams prefer to keep their mental services in house, which raises issues of conflict of interest. Others, such as the Boston Celtics, encourage their players to seek mental health services outside the team.

"I encourage every player, whether they show signs or not, to get some sort of help," Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge says. "I also believe everyone should have someone to talk to that's not associated with the team to help them deal with what's ahead of them. Some do, some do not.''

"I have always looked at mental health issues as no different than, 'Does [a] player need glasses?' Most mental health issues are something players need to maintain. If they stick to a maintenance program, it's going to help them. If they do not, it wo not."

Danny Ainge, Celtics director of basketball operations

Sanders says the reluctance to acknowledge mental health issues stems from ingrained societal machismo views that dismiss any form of therapy as a sign of weakness. Often, when people struggle with anxiety or depression, those closest to them do not acknowledge it because they do not understand it.

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