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NBA mental health in focus | Dr Brent Walker interview

Kelly Scaletta

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May 5, 2017; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Toronto Raptors guard DeMar DeRozan (10) drives past Cleveland Cavaliers forward Kevin Love (0) during game three of the second round of the 2017 NBA Playoffs at Air Canada Centre. Mandatory Credit: John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports
John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

In the last couple of weeks, NBA players have started to open up about their own mental health challenges.

DeMar DeRozan opened the gates, revealing that he struggled with depression to the Toronto Star’s Doug Smith.

Then, Kevin Love, inspired by DeRozan, wrote a piece for The Players’ Tribune revealing how he experienced a panic attack during a game and had to leave.

Most recently, Kelly Oubre Jr. told NBC Sports Washington’s Wizards Tipoff Podcast that he too is struggling with depression.

Dr. Brent Walker of Columbia University and the Association for Applied Sport Psychology (AASP) serves as the liaison between the AASP and the NBA’s Retired Player Association. He believes many more players have difficulties than just those who have publicly acknowledged it, based on his dealings with retired players.

“I think in the next five years we’ll see a big change in this,” Dr. Walker said in a phone interview with FanRag Sports. “In talking to former players, probably the most common thing — like I go to All-Star weekend through the liaison — and guys will say, ‘Wow, I wish this was available 20 years ago. But then they’ll immediately say, ‘But now I don’t have anything going on.’ And that’s kind of a common issue, and it came out in the Kevin Love article. There’s nothing wrong with me, and I don’t want to admit there’s anything wrong with me.

“I think there’s still a stigma of getting help for a mental health issue.” 

Walker elaborated on the stumbling blocks these players face when it comes to getting treatment.

“The league is trying to set up systems where they can refer people through confidential referrals. My hope is, in the future, every team will have someone on staff that they can talk to. Quite honestly, though, my experience with professional athletes is that they don’t want to talk to someone who works with the club because their fear is, ‘If the club thinks I have something wrong with me, it’s going to impact my contract negotiations.’ And I completely understand that. It’s a valid concern in some situations.” 

It’s a pretty compelling point. If a team is worried that a player is going to have a panic attack with the NBA Finals on the line, it might be less inclined to give that player needed support. Asked if it’s harder for players to admit they have problems, Dr. Walker confirmed that’s the case.

“One-hundred percent. That came out in Kevin’s thing. He was concerned that if he admitted what happened, his teammates wouldn’t trust him. I think that [players think their teammates] are going to think, ‘There’s something wrong with me, and they can’t depend on me, and I don’t want anyone to know that.’ And I’ve had guys tell me in the past that, ‘There’s no way I’m going to admit that I’m getting help because it’s just going to be seen as a weakness by everyone.’ So that culture definitely plays into the thinking and mitigates a refusal to get help.”

On a personal note, I had a period in my life when I was clinically depressed and on anti-depressants. Someone asked me, “If Steven Hawking isn’t depressed, how can you be?” I thought it was a funny question. Telling a depressed person to not be depressed isn’t like telling Hawking to not be depressed; it’s like telling him to walk. It’s part of the stigma that comes with these things, and it’s one Dr. Walker cautions against.

“A lot of times people see them (the NBA players), they’re like, ‘What could be wrong with these guys, they’re making millions of dollars. They’re professional athletes. Everyone loves them.’ But, I think DeRozan was the one to mention it. It doesn’t matter if you’re a professional athlete or anyone else. We all have issues. We all have problems we need to work through.

“And I think, the comment I hear a lot of times, ‘Oh, people have it worse off than me.’ That’s all relative, but that doesn’t mean you don’t deserve to get help. And we have different stressors, but everyone should be able to work through those stressors or get help for those.”

While this is mostly about the players, there may be readers and fans who are dealing with struggles of their own. Dr. Walker recommends talking to someone. While a lot of times that might be a family member or friend who may give helpful advice, you’re better off seeking help from a professional. Sometimes “advice givers” don’t give good advice, he warns.

The important thing is to shed the stigma and get help. Whether you’re talking about an NBA player or just an average Joe or Jane, mental health challenges are real. If you’re going through something, you’re going through something.

It helps to get help.

Kelly Scaletta is an assistant editor for Today's Fastbreak and Today's Pigskin. He has also written for Bleacher Report, BBallBreakdown, Vantage Sports, SportsNet, the Cauldron and others. You might not always agree with him, but he does.

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