Mental Health Stigma in the NBA

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We’re all familiar with stigma, right? The idea that somehow having a mental illness makes you weak, sick, less-than. When living with mental illness, stigma can affect our daily functioning. Something that is less often talked about is how stigma can be especially present among men. Based on societies forced gender roles which many still believe and enforce, men are not supposed to show emotion. They are supposed to be the epitome of strength and resilience without ever cracking. That’s a lot of pressure to put on someone! I wouldn’t blame any man for cracking under the immense pressure that gender roles emplace upon them. This can be especially true in professions such as sports. There is so much pressure riding on professional athletes to be ‘on’ all of time. Beit by fans, coaches, teammates, family and friends, professional athletes are some of the most scrutinized people out there because all eyes are always on them. They are almost expected to be invincible, and the second they show even a tiny glimmer of non-invincibility -- of humanity, they are scrutinized for it. This immense pressure to be perfect all of the time only further exacerbates the mental health stigma. How can a professional athlete be open and honest about their mental health struggles when they can’t even miss a lay-up without being criticized for it? Who knows what could happen if they decide to speak out about going through tough times. Shouldn’t they be allowed to? They are human, after all. This just goes to show that truly no one is invincible when it comes to mental illness. Mental illness does not discriminate, it can and does affect people in all different walks of life.

Thankfully, as of recently, the NBA is making strides for the first time in history to be more inclusive about mental health among its professional athletes. All this, thanks to the hard work and dedication of a few athletes who broke the mould by choosing to be honest, and speak up for what is right. Trailblazers DeMar DeRozan and Kevin Love are making waves in the NBA, and it’s not just because they can put up shots. Both arguably some of the best players in the league right now, it’s no surprise that their performance on the courts have made headlines across the country. It’s their off-the-court experiences, however, that are seldom discussed.  In February 2018, DeMar decided to send a difficult message to followers during the All-Star break. Typically a time of excitement and fun, friendly competition for participants, DeMar was feeling anything but. His tweet read “This depression gets the best of me.” What was seemingly a simple, 7-word tweet suddenly sparked overwhelming response from fans around the world. Clearly DeMar had touched on something so close to home for many fans, as the heart-felt replies and well-wishes rolled in. Unbeknownst to him, DeMar had just started a movement among players. A few weeks after his tweet blew up online, Kevin Love took to The Players Tribune to open up to fans about his own struggles with anxiety. “On November 5th, right after halftime against the Hawks, I had a panic attack” the 5-time NBA All-star writes. He continues on to tell his story, and encourage others to reach out by closing with “Everyone is going through something that we can’t see”.

Although slow in progression, changes in the NBA and NBPA (National Basketball Players Association) are being made. They now have plans to name a Director of Mental Health and Wellness, as well as plans to implement a Mental Wellness program for players. In a profession where mental health is so heavily stigmatized, we’re thankful to have trailblazers like DeMar and Kevin, whose honesty and resilience are helping to break down stigma across professional sports.









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