How NBA players are handling mental health issue during coronavirus crisis

The memo started by acknowledging a sobering reality.

The NBA players union predicted players, like many people around the world, would feel a “range of emotions” surrounding the coronavirus outbreak. The suspension of the season and subsequent social-distancing directives from public-health experts could induce "anxiety, panic, fear, uncertainty, confusion, feeling blindsided, hypervigilance, depression, sadness, mourning, an increased sense of vulnerability, boredom, and a heightened awareness of the needs for self-care.”

“The intensity of the above emotions will vary across time between high, medium and low,” the memo read.

Because of those concerns, the NBA and the players union are trying to help players with their mental health during these uncertain times.

Arenas in Washington, D.C., and elsewhere have been shuttered since the NBA shut down on March 11. (Photo: Leah Stauffer, USA TODAY Sports)

The NBA stopped play March 11 after Utah center Rudy Gobert tested positive for COVID-19, prompting the league to remind players and staff member about the continued access they have to counselors. The NBPA’s director of mental health and wellness, William Parham, and player wellness counselor, Keyon Dooling, have had daily phone and texting conversations with players. Cleveland Cavaliers star Kevin Love filmed a PSA as part of his efforts the past two years to speak about his struggles with anxiety and depression.

A message from @kevinlovepic.twitter.com/fS05sY0aVu

“There are reactions there that are very important and very real. But we also try to get across the message that embedded in every tragedy are opportunities for growth,” Parham told USA TODAY Sports. “We do believe in a mantra that stars shine their brightest at the darkest part of night.”

The outreach to players started years before the current global crisis. 

For instance, beginning in 2015, the league has made a clinical psychologist available to players and staff. In May 2018, the NBPA began its own mental health and wellness program. Before the 2019-20 season, the NBA required that all teams provide players with access to licensed, clinical mental health professionals.

Metta World Peace, Royce White, DeMar DeRozan, Blake Griffin, Justise Winslow, Kelly Oubre, Jay Williams, Markelle Fultz, Paul Pierce, Dooling and Love are among the former and current NBA players who have publicly shared their struggles and triumphs with mental health.

NBA Commissioner Adam Silver observed during last year’s MIT Sloan Conference that "a lot of these young men are genuinely unhappy."

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“I don’t necessarily think guys are unhappy all the time. But there is trauma that guys experience, phobias that guys and insecurities (our) guys have just like everybody else in society,” Dooling said. “That’s where mental wellness comes into play. You have to work on those things so you can get better and live a happier and better life.”

But the NBA and players union’s latest efforts with mental health arguably bear the most significance.

“This coronavirus has hit our league very, very hard,” Dooling told USA TODAY Sports. “We’re just like everybody else trying to figure it out and make sure that we support each other through this trying time.”

Players are constantly nursing anxieties over performance, trade rumors, injuries or their personal life. This season, they have also anguished over the death of former NBA Commissioner David Stern and former Los Angeles Lakers star Kobe Bryant and his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna.

In recent weeks, players have had concerns about their own health after at least 10 active players tested positive for COVID-19. They have stressed about staying physically fit and being confined to their homes. And, like many Americans, players are worried about when they can return to work and possible financial ramifications.

That has led the NBPA to take additional steps since the season was suspended. For example, Dooling and Parham said they plan to organize video-conference meetings with players beginning this week. The union has also offered players a database with links to mental health and wellness programs and has stressed the need to follow social-distancing guidance.

Yolanda Bruce Brooks, a clinical and sports psychologist who once consulted with the Dallas Cowboys, has spoken with an unspecified number of NBA players before and after the season was suspended. Eric Kussin, founder of SameHere Global Health Movement, hosted a webinar on Tuesday about mental health issues with sports business executives. Love revealed on his Instagram account that he consulted with Michelle Craske, a UCLA professor of psychology, psychiatry and biobehavioral sciences.

“It's important to know that those with a mental illness may be vulnerable to the effects of widespread panic and threat,” Love wrote in an Instagram post. “Be kind to one another. Be understanding of their fears, regardless if you don't feel the same.”

Love said that Craske gave other tips. She advised Love to limit how often he uses his phone and television and to only seek trusted news sources once or twice a day. She encouraged him to consistently eat nutritious food and drink water. She suggested to carve out time both to talk with friends and family on the phone, meditate and perform slow-breathing exercises.

In his memos and conversations, Parham said he has given “concrete strategies for managing anxieties, frustrations, boredom and uncertainty.”

Parham has encouraged players to study film and has suggested players “invest in their relational capital” by embracing the increased family time. Parham has stressed that players keep a routine with their sleeping and meals, and even spend time learning how to cook now that they don't have meals provided by chefs and their teams.

“We have little to no control over what happens to us,” Parham said. “But we have 100 percent control over how we respond to the challenges in front of us.”

Follow USA TODAY Sports NBA reporter Mark Medina on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. 

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