With the NBA Conference Semifinals under way, the attention of just about every basketball fan in the world is squarely focused on the events taking place on the court. The NBA, however, also has its focus on another ball. The organization is joining forces with the players’ union to launch a program that addresses the mental wellness of players. This program will include both a website and public service ads that stress the importance of mental—not just physical—health among athletes.
Both the site and the ads are live as of Tuesday, May 1.
Two of the players who are promoting the program – Toronto Raptors DeMar DeRozan and Cleveland Cavaliers Kevin Love – say they hope to make discussion of mental health issues more accepted among athletes. Presently, it is rare for players to speak openly about their mental health because they feel there a stigma on athletes who struggle with mental illness, particularly depression. Consequently, they oftentimes feel alienated and ashamed of their feelings, which lead them to bottle up their problems. This only makes matters worse.
Even though between 10% and 20% of the U.S. population experiences depression at some point in their lives, there continues to be some hesitancy to openly discuss it—even outside of the athletic community. However, there is no reason that anyone should feel shame or that they need to shoulder the burden of depression on their own or hide symptoms should they feel sad, worthless, hopeless, or unmotivated.
Depression is not a sign of weakness. It is a medical condition with a strong genetic component. Depression can be triggered by stressful life events like the death of a loved one, financial difficulties, relationship troubles, sickness, or trauma. Any of these events can have a dramatic impact on one’s brain chemistry — presenting as deficiencies of the neurotransmitters norepinephrine, serotonin, and dopamine – and lead to depression and can often occur concurrently with other anxiety disorders or obsessive compulsive disorder.
Whether on its own or in conjunction with these comorbidities, depression can have an impact on sleep, appetite, and cognition. It can also increase the likelihood of suicide. Notably, as many as 15% of people diagnosed with depression take their own lives, so diagnosis and treatment are clearly critical.
Like any other medical condition, seeking treatment for depression sooner rather than later hastens recovery time significantly, and treatment for depression can reduce the associated risk of suicide. The average depressive episode for patients who receive treatment is three months. Untreated, these episodes can last from six months to over a year, if not longer. A lack of treatment can also mean additional and protracted bouts of depression, since 75% of people who experience depression face at least one additional depressive episode. Furthermore, a depressive episode can often be the initial symptom of bipolar disorder, which requires different methods of treatment. Proper evaluation can eliminate the prospect of misdiagnosis.
On top of ensuring the right diagnosis, a full evaluation can allow a medical professional to take into account the personal needs and preferences of patients and provide them with a unique method of treatment. This unique touch lies at the heart of the Integrative Center for Wellness, and the approach has proven to be very effective. Studies have shown that upwards of 80% of those who have been diagnosed with depression improved with a combination of psychopharmacology and psychotherapy.
However, it is impossible to diagnose and treat any illness if one is unwilling to openly discuss it. This is why removing the stigma around depression is absolutely vital, and why the NBA’s new program to bring the mental health of athletes into the open is a major step forward for mental wellness.