As the National Football League (NFL) gears up for the start of its regular season this week, policies and practices related to mental health are underway to help the league, its players, and its fans enjoy the game in healthier ways. Some concepts like stronger sport psychology and increased avenues for treatment are related more specifically to players, while other adjustments are directed toward greater inclusion at the fan level.
Making Games More Inclusive
Going to a football game can be a fun outing for the whole family, but for football fans on the autism spectrum and their families, the stadium on game day can be a daunting destination. According to the United States Department of Education, 1 out of every 50 school-age children are on the autism spectrum. For these children, noise, lights, and crowds can be overwhelming.
This year, the Seattle Seahawks implemented a toolkit for attending families with children on the autism spectrum. Included inside are earplugs, a pair of noise-reducing headphones, sensory toys, and a detailed game schedule. The kit represents a way in which the league is openly discussing mental health topics, and it highlights an effort to make games as accessible as possible.
“We realized there were a few simple things we could do that would make a positive impact for Seahawks fans on the spectrum,” said David Young, the Seahawk’s vice president of stadium operations, in a statement. “The toolkits are just the first step.”
The changes in Seattle are similar to an approach from the Indianapolis Colts launched in 2014. The Colts instituted training to multiple departments on how to better serve fans with autism. Their website also now includes an educational visualization depicting the sights and sounds of a typical stadium visit to help prepare families with children on the autism spectrum before attending a game.
Confidential Crisis Hotlineanxiety as they close out their careers in the league. In the process, they can quickly lose the social support a team often brings, along with a sense of purpose.
Familial problems, financial difficulties, and game-related injuries have also been seen as common aggravating factors among those retired from the sport—difficulties sometimes exacerbated by mental health issues. The NFL Life Line attempts to connect members with the assistance they need before difficulties develop into crises.
The NFL Life Line was first developed four years ago as a confidential support and services link to active and former players, coaches, team staff, and their families. The program integrates assistance and referrals for mental well-being, crisis support, suicide prevention, and treatment of substance abuse addictions. The service can be used anonymously and is staffed by independent counselors. More recent additions include making the service available as an online chat.
Depression and Suicide Awareness
A study in the journal JAMA Neurology in 2013 found that 40% of the former NFL players examined showed signs of cognitive impairment. Researchers also observed a frequency of symptoms associated with depression, including weight fluctuation, mood swings, and low energy. Most of the former players studied did not realize these symptoms had anything to do with brain trauma.
Depression is an ongoing concern even among active players, but researchers have found it is surprisingly common among former NFL players. “It’d be easier to start with which ones do not have depression,” former Green Bay Packer Aaron Taylor told ESPN when asked about retirees. “Observationally, it’s a significant percentage.”
Some athletes may be more affected by stigma attached to seeking help, with many seeing it as an indication of weakness. This can cause athletes to isolate themselves from treatment, and they may even shut out those closest to them as they attempt to deal with their symptoms alone.
Some athletes may be more affected by stigma attached to seeking help, with many seeing it as an indication of weakness. This can cause athletes to isolate themselves from treatment, and they may even shut out those closest to them as they attempt to deal with their symptoms alone.The NFL Players Association runs a program headed by former Detroit Lions quarterback Eric Hipple. Having lost his own son to suicide, Hipple was silent about his own experience with bouts of depression and suicidal ideation for years. Now he helps others work through the pain.
“When a player’s career ends, he can suddenly have depression, situational or otherwise, presenting itself as grief, hypertension, weight gain, and loss of sleep” Hipple said in an NFL Player Engagement interview. “Stress takes its toll.”
Meanwhile, the league is also taking a harder look at the long-term costs players experience due to concussions. Research is ongoing to define a potential link between depression and a condition often seen from repeated blows to the head: chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).
Levels of depression with CTE can range from moderate to extreme. After Junior Seau died by suicide in 2012, the retired New England Patriot and longtime San Diego Chargers linebacker was discovered to have CTE. The year before, former Chicago Bears player Dave Duerson also died by suicide. Duerson left a note asking for his brain to be used for future CTE research.
For active players, sport psychology has proven to be a multifaceted tool. It can improve performance on the field and help players maintain focus, control emotions, and overcome doubt. It also helps lay solid groundwork for facing post-career difficulties that are often unique to professional athletes.
Some players end their careers after an injury, others due to aging. Many players are still relatively young when they retire, and they are often left with an uncertain path. For the majority who are not at the upper sponsorship level, their main source of income is also gone.
Part of successful sport psychology is preparing athletes for the end of their career, offering an emotional foundation and perspective for moving forward and transitioning into life after a professional sports career. Sport psychologists also assist with players who do not intuitively feel comfortable in the spotlight. Social anxiety can become inflamed under the intense scrutiny and pressure involved with racing for a Super Bowl ring. By having a mental health professional on-hand to advise, the hope is more players can avoid issues like self-medicating in an attempt to overcome such challenges privately.
By becoming more inclusive and aware of mental health, the NFL can hopefully score a major victory over fear, silence, and stigma.
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