Psychotherapy Interventions: The NFL’s Obligation for a Mental Health Resolution

By Jordan Bible

February 15th , marks a day where yet another tragedy fills the media; another young former NFL star falling victim to one of the most dangerous aspect of the game- mental health. It is unfortunate that we as a culture and within the community of worldwide American football seem to be toeing the edge of desensitization. As another obituary will include the words ‘great football player’, we who love the sport can not let another brother pass in vain. 

As a former collegiate football player who never got the chance to participate in an NFL training camp, I can not help but to feel that I, in a way, dodged a bullet. That statement comes from a young black man and football player, whose intersectionality has led me to face plenty of adversity in my own mental health. Stillman and colleagues (2019) mentioned sports related concussions (SRC) and black athletes identity as new prevailing issues which deserve the research of new therapeutic strategies. Vincent Jackson, like myself, was someone who embodied the meshing of these two issues which we have to suspect, played a role. 

Elite athletes across the World run a higher risk of mental health symptoms and disorders like depression and anxiety than your average American adult (Stillman et al. 2019, Gulliver et al. 2015, Foskett & Longstaff 2018). This fact is mind blowing when you consider that this Country ranks in the top 10 in the world for mental health illness (World Health Organization) with 1 in 5 adults currently suffering from one or multiple conditions. One of the top organizations that profits from elite athletics is the National Football League (NFL), who is a multi-BILLION dollar organization with many of the individual teams being valued well over the billion-dollar mark. Yet, most would argue that little to nothing has been done to use those resources to ensure that one of the deadliest crises facing their current and former employees is resolved.

‘Psychoeducation’ and ‘performance help’ (Stillman et al., 2019) are two notified foundations of psychotherapy that the NFL diligently notified and ‘resolved’ in 2019. The NFL required a base level of mandatory education for all people in an organization, in order to try to resolve the stigma surrounding mental health. The League and Player’s Association also mandated the staffing of a single mental health clinician. The effort represents at lest some level of progress, but comes no where near what is realistically necessary. Like Algebra in high school, educational requirements often leave people without lasting knowledge- how applicable is this mandated psychoeducation? Each NFL teams’ training staff employs around 10 individuals full time (plus dozens who are contracted) whose only job is to help manage and be a resource for the physical body of the athletes- how can we expect 1 individual working 8-12 hours a week, to provide a true resource for athletes?

Mind you, these are the lacking resources provided for the current rostered athletes employed by an NFL team. The NFLPA’s website outlined the mental health resources for former players: 8 free mental health sessions for those insured by Cigna, a NFL specific life-line for crisis, and a list of phone applications and other resources for mental health- self care. Oh, and they also notify that they are working on a State by State list of clinicians who can help- ‘coming soon!’. Neither of these acknowledging the reality of what Stillman and colleagues report: that mental health disorders “benefit from the long-term treatment, possibly over a life-time” (2019, p. 769). 

The staffing of 12 hours a week for a mental clinician which ends when an athlete loses his roster spot makes a mockery of the ideological intervention of long-term psychotherapy. “Psychotherapy, either as the sole treatment or combined with other non-pharmacological and pharmacological strategies, is a pivotal component of management of mental health symptoms and disorders in elite athletes” (Stillman eat al., 2019, p. 767). Yet, “[N]o controlled studies were found on the use of individual psychotherapy for treating mental health symptoms and disorders in elite athletes” (Stillman et al., 2019, p. 769). Multiple modalities of psychotherapy have proven effective for helping those who struggle with mental health symptoms and disorders in the general population. Cognitive behavioral (CBT), motivational enhancement (MET), psychodynamic therapies (Stillman et al., 2019), psilocybin assisted psychotherapies (Carhart-Harris, 2018 & Unlimited Sciences), and MDMA assisted therapy (MAPS) are some of the various modalities that have shown significant efficacy for mental health symptoms and disorders. The organizations and Universities who have bootstrapped these studies have done so in the name of academic rigor and have thus been limited in funding by the donations and grants that are scarcely allocated. Thus, there exists an opportunity for the NFL to lead the initiative for once, and truly progress the field by studying mental health interventions for elite athletes. 

“If mental health services are provided and care is integrated with other team clinical and administrative staff, then utilization rates and satisfaction with services may be high” (Stillman et al., 2019, p. 771). The NFL undoubtedly has the power and resources to research many resolutions, or donate resources to organizations and non-profits (MAPS, Unlimited Sciences, etc.) who are already breaking ground. The NFL failing to undertake dramatic efforts to ensure the health of their players begs the question- Does The National Football League and Player’s Association care about their players with the same zeal with which they care for their bottom lines?

References and Citations: The author of this article, Jordan Bible, is currently volunteering on the staff of Unlimited Sciences as he finishes his Master’s in Sports Psychology-sports coaching at The University of Denver. The author has noted a few biases as he believes in psychedelic assisted psychotherapies for the treatment of mental health disorders including athletes effected by concussions. As a former collegiate football player at The University of Northern Colorado, where Vincent Jackson played, he was positively affected by the career of Mr. Jackson. R.I.P Brother Bear – we will do better! Bible can be found on instagram @blk__psycientist

 

References and Citations

Stillman, M.A, Glick, I.D, McDuff, D, et al. (2019) Psychotherapy for mental health symptoms and disorders in elite athletes: a narrative review. Br J Sports Med., 53: 767–771.

Gulliver A., Griffiths K.M, Mackinnon A, et al. (2015) The mental health of Australian elite athletes. J Sci Med Sport, 18:255–261

Foskett R.L & Longstaff F. (2018) The mental health of elite athletes in the United Kingdom. J 36 Sci Med Sport, 21:765–770.

Carhart-Harris, R.L, Bolstridge, M, Day, C.M.J, et al. (2018) Psilocybin with psychological support for treatment-resistant depression: six-month follow-up. Psychopharmacology, 235:399–408.  

(MAPS) Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies. MDMA assisted Therapies. United States, www.maps.org

(WHO) World Health Organization. www.who.int 

(NFLPA) National Football League Player’s Association. United States, www.nflpa.com/active-players/health/counseling

Unlimited Sciences. Psilocybin Studies. United States, www.unlimitedsciences.org

 

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