Watching your favorite NBA team battle it out against a rival on the court may be stressful for a fan—but just imagine being a player. Professional athletes are revered and worshipped, pushing their bodies to the limit in ridiculously high-pressure situations. While it can be thrilling to watch, all that demand can have a big impact on a player’s mental health. And the NBA certainly isn’t ignoring that fact.
In fact, the NBA has an entire program dedicated to supporting the mental wellness of players, led by clinical and sports psychologist Kensa Gunter, Psy.D. Gunter, who is the director of the Mind Health program for the NBA, recently joined the Men’s Health Instagram Live series Friday Sessions to share her wisdom and expertise on male mental health, especially when it comes to top-performing athletes.
Dr. Gunter may not be a household name like the players she serves, but her work certainly deserves the same amount of recognition. In her role with the NBA, Dr. Gunter ensures players have all the tools and resources needed to maintain and protect their mental health, working with teams and individuals to support emotional and mental well-being.
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In conversation with Friday Sessions host Drew Ramsey, M.D., Dr. Gunter discussed how she approaches mental health, starting out by reframing the term entirely.
“When we think about mental health, historically in our society, we’ve thought about mental illness,” Dr. Gunter said during the talk. “So we say ‘mental health’ but we think about the challenges, the stressors, and disorders. When we think about mental health, we need to think about it as a continuum that does include illness. We do want to have strategies and offer support when people need that. But it also includes wellness and things we can proactively do to take care of ourselves.”
The NBA’s Mind Health program, which started in 2018, focuses on supporting players no matter what their mental health status is, turning attention to both those struggling with mental illness and those thriving in their lives and careers.
“Life can be challenging,” Dr. Gunter said. “Managing the spotlight and performing in highly intense, pressured situations [can be challenging]. Sometimes you just need someone to talk to.”
To get to the professional level, Dr. Gunter said many elite athletes already have healthy practices as part of their routines. But the Mind Health program helps gives them a framework to think about their routines—and skills to enhance their practice. The program focuses on four main ways to care for mental health, which Gunter broke down to fit the acronym MIND.
“Taking care of your mind includes these four things: Maintenance—you just might need a check-in or somebody to talk through things,” she said. “You might need Information–just more information about signs and symptoms. More information about coping strategies and things you can proactively do to take care of yourself. You might need to develop some New Skills. At [the professional] level, you’re trying to constantly elevate your game. So we can help folks develop new skills—meditation skills, positive self-talk strategies, goal setting, and encouraging mindfulness and gratitude practices. And then, of course, if you need Direct Support, we are there and available.”
Even with the program in place, players aren’t immune to the societal stigma around receiving mental health services. According to Dr. Gunter, one big challenge men in the NBA face when seeking mental health support is a common barrier experienced by many men in society—the pressures of masculinity.
“Men have been socialized to keep their issues, their challenges, and their struggles to themselves,” Dr. Gunter said. “They have not been socialized or encouraged to be open with what they might be struggling with. There is this notion that men are supposed to be ‘strong’ which has equated to historically some level of emotional suppression.”
She added that society should embrace a shift in the idea of strength, expanding the definition to “not only include those times when you can navigate challenges but those times when you recognize that you need help and support and you can ask for the help that you need.”
She said, “It is a very courageous thing to ask for help, which is why I think all the players in our league who are sharing their stories are so central to this movement and this shift in how we talk about mental health. These are folks where we look at them and think of them as being almost invincible, superhuman, at the top of their game. And yet they are talking about very real experiences that many of us may be able to identify with.”
Yet, some are critical of NBA players sharing their struggles. On one hand, players in the league can be looked at as being incredibly privileged, attaining fame and fortune from their skill on the court. But Dr. Gunter said that reality doesn’t free players from mental illness or struggles in life.
“Mental health doesn’t discriminate,” she said. “Certainly someone may have more access to certain kinds of resources than others may have access to, but again, that doesn’t absolve anybody from experiencing life and being impacted by things that happen in life…Money, resources, fame, success, popularity—it doesn’t absolve us from the human experience.”
For Dr. Gunter, serving professional athletes boils down to one truth: “Even though they’re exceptional with what they do on the court, they’re people.”
For more wisdom from Dr. Gunter, watch the entire conversation below:
Katie Dupere is an editor and writer in New York City specializing in identity, internet culture, social good, lifestyle and beauty topics.