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Q&A: Mental Health Awareness with Dr. Kensa Gunter


May in the NBA means the playoffs are underway, the end of season awards are out, and the 2024 NBA Draft looms, too. Not to be lost in the shuffle, it is also Mental Health Awareness month in the NBA, too.

In 2018, DeMar DeRozan and Kevin Love shared some of their mental health struggles. Their candor helped spark a conversation among athletes and people worldwide about mental health, serving as a driving force behind the NBA’s creation of the Mind Health program.To celebrate Mental Health Awareness Month, NBA Mind Health is helping fans discover their personal Mind Health style — move, play, pause, learn, connect, and nourish.  

Finding regular opportunities to engage in these types of activities can help boost your mental wellness. Fans are invited to visit the website to take a four-item quiz to learn about their Mind Health style, view video content, find curated tips to sharpen their skills, and invite their friends to Join the Squad! talked with Dr. Kensa Gunter, the director of Mind Health, to learn more about the program, humanizing athletes, mental health and wellness, and the importance of taking care of yourself. 

The following 1-on-1 conversation has been condensed and edited.

Can you tell me a little bit about how the Mind Health program began? 

Dr. Kensa Gunter: It’s the league’s mental health, wellness and performance program. Initially, the program consisted of a series of recommended practices regarding the type of mental health support that should be available at the team level.

Since that time it has expanded beyond recommended practices to include certain requirements and the focus has also expanded to include a focus on mental performance and wellness. Our vision is to position mental health as an essential element of excellence, both on and off the court, led by the three guiding principles which are to:

Humanize Mental HealthElevate PerformanceHonor Lived Experience

What are some of the resources available to players and people via Mind Health?We work with and service all of our player leagues: NBA, WNBA, NBA 2K League, BAL (Basketball Africa League) and NBA G League. We also offer support to team staff, league staff, coaches and we have extended support to referees. We really try to be a resource for any and everybody within the NBA ecosystem.

The three things we try to do are: offer guidance, provide education and clinical support and promote culture change as it relates to mental health and mental performance.

We also provide resources to help teams understand the types of professionals who are providing these services by helping people understand the credentials and experiences that they should be looking for in qualified professionals in this space. We also understand that having a resource is great, but if it’s not accessible or people don’t feel it’s integrated into their world, they really won’t use it, so we provide guidance that outlines the ways in which teams can integrate mental health and mental performance professionals into the organization’s activities. Is there anything in particular you’re proud of implementing?I’m really proud of our professional Mind Health network. Currently, all teams are required to have a designated licensed health provider and psychiatrist, and many teams also employ mental performance consultants. I feel like our network is the heart of the program. The fact that we have professionals in our teams’ markets who are available to support each team is incredible and I am really grateful for all of the service and support that they provide.When I started there were maybe four to five teams who employed professionals in a full-time capacity. Now, about a third of the teams employ someone full-time in this mind health role.Why do you think it’s important for a sports league like the NBA to have these services? What has been your takeaway working with professional athletes?When we talk about sport, we are really talking about people. We need to think about how we’re taking care of these people, these human beings who happen to also be exceptional athletes.

These are people who are often under a lot of scrutiny and who are trying to live, work, play, develop and thrive in very high-pressure situations. The perceived benefits of being a professional athlete — which may include success on the court, financial security, and the access and opportunity that comes with “celebrity” status — don’t stop you from being human and don’t stop you from experiencing the stresses of life. 

The biggest thing is understanding that professional athletes are people just like all of us. They’re trying to live, grow, take care of their people, be happy and live full lives. It’s important for us to remember this, to acknowledge and honor the person first, not just the athlete.

For anyone struggling with mental health, what would be your biggest piece of advice?We’ve heard this a lot, but it’s okay to not be okay. Facing challenges, struggles, adversity … it’s part of the human experience. Mental health does not discriminate — in any given year, one in five adults in the U.S. has a diagnosable mental health condition — but there is help and treatment available.

In addition to restoring health during moments of challenge, I would also encourage people to think about how they are maintaining and engaging in activities to promote and optimize their health on a regular basis as well.What do you hope NBA fans take away from this month?The biggest message: there are many different ways that you can take care of your mental health, (but) there is not a one-size-fits-all all approach. It’s important for all of us to be intentional about prioritizing our mental health, not just in May, but all year round. Mind Health wants to encourage you to prioritize your health and wellness. These six approaches can help you take care of your mental well-being: 1. Move 2. Play 3. Learn 4. Connect 5. Pause 6. Nourish

And remember, be good to yourself and be good to each other.

Discover your personal Mind Health style here!

For more information and resources, visit the Mind Health website. If a mental health challenge is beginning to affect your life, there is help available. Talk with someone you trust, such as a friend, family member, counselor or faith leader. For immediate assistance, call or text “988” OR text “TEAM” to 741741 for access to free and confidential support.

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