Monday, May 27, 2024

How The NFL Players Association Is Tackling Mental Health

Must read

With Michael Phelps and Simone Biles speaking openly about their mental health challenges in recent years, sports leagues and players associations around the country are making resources available to their athletes. No one is setting a better example than the National Football League Players Association (NFLPA).

In 2019, the NFLPA otherwise known as the National Football League Players Association, the union representing professional football players, joined with the league to form a Comprehensive Mental Health and Wellness Committee and a formal mandate required teams to retain a Behavioral Health Team Clinician to support player mental health and well-being. The NFLPA has created an extensive list of offerings and resources for athletes to utilize.

Amber Cargill, Psy.D., the Director of Player Wellness at the NFLPA since 2019, told me about several NFLPA mental health initiatives. “As the union, we are 100%, unequivocally player focused and our programs are driven by players and what they request,” Dr. Cargill said.

Although the Behavioral Health Program has been in the collective bargaining agreement since 2019, players also request support outside of their club. The NFLPA has created a robust directory of vetted clinicians in and around team cities who are available to see players quickly to limit the barriers to seeking mental health treatment. Dr. Cargill said, “We aim to get a player in contact with a clinician within a few days of their request and an appointment within a week.”

Currently, the NFLPA has 107 clinicians, comprised of psychologists, psychiatrists, social workers, counselors, and licensed marriage and family therapists, in its Clinician Directory. Dr. Cargill explains that more players are looking for in-person appointments and the NFLPA is working to add more clinicians to its directory. Currently, the directory includes providers located in all 30 cities where teams are located and there is an active push to include additional providers that have in-person availability.

For Mental Health Awareness Month, Dr. Cargill reports “we’re highlighting players and how they address their mental health.” In her role specifically, she notes that although she’s a licensed psychologist, her role with the NFLPA is to act as a bridge between the player and services. She assists players in connecting with mental health clinicians and psychiatrists for ongoing treatment.

Dr. Cargill answers what some of the most common mental health challenges are that professional football players face. “Just like the general population, athletes struggle with depression, anxiety, ADHD, and stress,” she says. Dr. Cargill elaborates, “they worry about their job safety and security in addition to their off-field stressors at home and in their personal lives.” Dr. Cargill takes pride in ensuring that players have a good experience when connecting them with mental health resources through the NFLPA.

One of the many programs offered through the NFLPA is the Players Association Injured Reserve Program (PAIR). In this program, there are several resources that guide players through their recovery journeys. The NFLPA remained adaptable throughout the COVID-19 pandemic to ensure minimal disruption to player services. In response to the pandemic, the PAIR program went virtual, but it is now back fully in-person. When players are in the PAIR program, “we try to address ways in which we can educate them on the psychological impacts of injury, and we talk to them about the NFLPA’s resources so they can be productive while away from the game.”

Another initiative that Dr. Cargill is involved in is the NFL Substances of Abuse Program. She says, “we work with the Substances of Abuse Program, so if a player tests positive, we serve as a liaison between the player and the program to ensure the player gets what he needs from the program.” The program itself is intended to be independently run by a 3rd party, so the NFLPA’s role is to make sure players have an experience that is rooted in player health and wellness, and get reconnected with resources, if needed.

Dr. Cargill shares that the mental health initiative at the NFLPA has several success stories. She describes, “oftentimes a player that gets injured will go through the PAIR Program, move through to the leadership summit, and then becomes a spokesperson for what the NFLPA can offer other players.” Dr. Cargill further notes, “players become important ambassadors for wellness because they see how much these programs help them as individuals.”

When asked about what role education and de-stigmatization plays in promoting mental health awareness and seeking help among players, Dr. Cargill says, “what we know to be true is a lot of our athletes are coming in from programs where there’s a mental health clinician on staff or accessible. So the idea of a mental health professional being around is commonplace.” She describes that in each draft class, players are more and more versed in what mental health is and the resources that are available to them. Dr. Cargill explains, “the next step is helping players understand what to do when they’re struggling, as elite athlete have dealt with a lot of adversity but may not be as tuned into their emotional states.” She notes the importance of making sure that players are given additional education, and this is at top of mind as she continues to build out the NFLPA’s programming surrounding mental health.

The NFLPA is working hard to provide an extensive menu of resources and programs to the players. Under Dr. Cargill’s leadership, the NFLPA has been able to implement several mental health resources and programs for its athletes.

Latest article