When Buffalo Bills safety Damar Hamlin suffered a heart attack and collapsed on the field in the middle of a “Monday Night Football” game in Cincinnati on Jan. 2, Carrie Hastings, half a continent away, understood what she had to do – and immediately. .
“I had a few guys that I knew I had to go with,” said Hastings, the Los Angeles Rams’ psychologist and psychiatrist. “Several spouses and significant others, too.”
Hastings’ familiarity with the Rams staff, and with whom the players may be upset after seeing Hamlin’s shocking medical condition, came from being with the team for six seasons – getting to know the players, meeting the players when they first arrived, and being at the Rams’ facility all the time. .
Across the NFL, there is no such continuity of care. The league is working to make mental health services available to players, coaches, and staff where a variety of counseling services are standardized and readily available.
It was just over three years ago, in 2019, that the NFL implemented a program to address the mental health needs of its employees. This came as part of a new collective bargaining agreement, after the NFL Players Association pushed for it to be created. Among other things, the agreement mandates that each group have a medical certificate of conduct for employees.
But individual franchises still have a huge advantage in meeting the guidelines. Some have full-time psychologists; some use therapists on a temporary basis, while others connect with outside agents and make them available to players, Hastings said. And therapists don’t need to have a sports background, which some psychiatrists see as a major problem.
“This is a very special place,” said Sam Maniar, a psychologist who consults with the Cleveland Browns and previously worked as a full-time physician. “The environment of athletics, especially at the highest level, is something that requires special skills, and not every doctor that is brought into the NFL has that.”
Hastings was a track and field athlete in his early years at Notre Dame, has extensive experience with athletics, and is listed on the US Olympic & Paralympic Committee’s roster of sports psychology and psychiatry. He keeps his private practices a short drive from the Rams’ training facility in Agoura Hills, northwest of Los Angeles, and although he works part-time, Hastings said he’s at the facility three to four times a week “and he’s on call. 24/7 during the season.”
As such, Hastings has worked to build a foundation of trust with elite athletes who often think of mental health professionals simply as enabling them to compete.
“It often happens that a player comes to do something related to the game, which opens the door to discussions about other mental groups,” he said. “Friendship is growing.”
The constant presence of groups and teams is important, doctors say, especially since some athletes have begun to speak openly about the emotional and psychological problems they face and have encouraged their colleagues to be open to help.
Tennis player Naomi Osaka, Olympic gold medalists Simone Biles and Michael Phelps, NBA stars Kevin Love and DeMar DeRozan have all spoken publicly about their mental health issues in the past decade, and several have led awareness campaigns. “I appreciate them talking about their struggles and the great benefits they received from the treatment they had,” said Maniar, who runs a gym in Ohio and works with college and high school football teams beyond his personal relationships with players. Browns.
The NFL is a difficult arena for such discussions. Players in the league are used to dealing with pain and injuries of all kinds as a job, and throughout the league’s history, its athletes have been trained not to show any vulnerability.
The establishment of the league program, although an important step, did not significantly accelerate change. “I think the NFL is still a dinosaur in that regard,” Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers told The New York Times two seasons ago. “There’s a stigma around talking about emotions, coping, and dealing with stress. There’s a lot of language that’s seen as weak.”
The players’ union has grown significantly in response to this problem. “NFL players are often seen as the pinnacle of masculinity, and because taking care of our health and seeking help has never been associated with masculinity, many of us do not prioritize this aspect of our health,” union president JC. Tretter, an eight-year NFL veteran, wrote in a 2021 blog for players, urging them to take advantage of what’s available.
Hamlin’s unusual emergency, in which he required on-field CPR before being transported to the hospital from the Cincinnati stadium where the Bills and Bengals are playing, “caused some anxiety in some players, and it caused some anxiety,” Hastings said. In addition to contacting several players individually, he sent a message to the Rams organization reminding athletes, coaches, and staff members who were there to speak.
“Most of them were receptive,” Hastings said. “The elephant in the room is death. Players know they can get hurt, and they’ve all dealt with injuries, but this involves something they have no control over.”
Bills and Cincinnati Bengals players stood in silence as Hamlin lay on the field. A few days later, the Buffalo players were still struggling to express their feelings. “This scene just goes over and over in your head,” Josh Allen said at a press conference, fighting back tears. “It’s hard to describe how I felt and how my friends felt at that time.
Hamlin’s progress, including his release from the hospital to recuperate at home, “will help alleviate the problems the players have been facing,” said Dr. Joshua Norman, a psychologist at Ohio State University who often works with athletes on mental health. . “But even if they try to separate things, these players will see serious injuries. Some will be very impressed.”
Dr. Claudia Reardon, a psychologist at the University of Wisconsin, said that the term “vicarious trauma” also applies in this case. “The first thing that happened to you is that it doesn’t happen to you, but it’s very difficult to see or know,” Reardon said. Reactions range from fear and helplessness to nightmares and vivid images, he said, and some runners try to avoid “people, places, or things that remind them of the horrors they’ve seen.”
“I wouldn’t be surprised to see a few players retire early,” Maniar said. “And the biggest problem is players who are going to play reluctantly or out of fear. That’s the surest way to get hurt in a game like football, and this is a league where contracts are not guaranteed. You’ve heard the saying. ‘The NFL means not for the long term.’ The players feel that pressure.”
The NFL’s best chance to make major strides in health care, doctors say, may be based on the simple fact that it is recruiting and developing new talent. “The younger generation is more advanced in terms of mental health, weather,” said Norman. “They come to college often having already established a relationship with their mental health needs, through counseling or other means. They are open to the idea of dealing with their mental health.”
Inside the franchise complexes, work continues. Both Hastings and Maniar were employed by their respective NFL teams years before the league established a doctor, and both made sure to keep an office away from the practice area for players who weren’t comfortable seeing them at work. But recently, Hastings said that, too, is changing.
“Players talk about this kind of thing a lot, and they do it openly,” he said. “In many ways, we have been developing our health policy since I was born in 2017.” In the NFL, it shows a slow turnaround.
This article was produced by KHN, which publishes California Healthline, an independent service of the California Health Care Foundation.
This article is reprinted from khn.org with permission from the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation. Kaiser Health News, an independent news conference, is a program of the Kaiser Family Foundation, a health research organization independent of Kaiser Permanente.