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March 12, 2019 by Bob Nikkel, MSW

National Basketball and Peer Supports

I see eye-to-eye with most players in the National Basketball Association.  Recently I proved this by a random meeting with two guys in the Portland airport who were just a shade taller than I am–one was a former NBA player and the other a current member of the Portland Trailblazers.  6-10 and 6-11, respectively.

So you are asking, what does this NBA stuff have to do with peer support?
Adam Silver, the commissioner of the NBA was interviewed recently and talked about the number of NBA players, who in spite of their athletic success–and I might add, their million dollar plus contracts–deal with a lot of unhappiness in their personal lives.

Adam Silver: Social Media, Anxiety Play Role in NBA Stars Being Unhappy>
Mr. Silver pointed out a couple of factors that he thinks drive this.  One is that so many players come from fairly difficult neighborhoods and a lot of poverty until they come into a different world financially.  I suspect that many of them would score pretty high on the scale we talk about in the mental health world–Adverse Childhood Events. It’s been pretty well shown that high ACE scores lead to all kinds of problems from addictions to mental health challenges.
The second factor had to do with the increasing isolation so many players fall into and Mr. Silver pointed out that social media as mediated by earphones on the planes and  trips to and from hotels and arenas are extremely common sights now.  One of the old sayings in the basketball world is that “championships are won or lost on the bus.”
By this he meant something we would call peer supports.  Teammates perform differently when they develop solid relationships, trust each other off the court translates to trusting each other in the games.  This is the formula that peers being with and providing for open trusting helping relationships have created.
I don’t think for a minute that the NBA is going to adopt our language.  But if they can move toward something like the concept, it would be much better than trying out the kinds of failed mental health “treatments” like psychiatric medications.  There is a relatively new project working to increase the mental health services for  NBA players.  I pointed out to a close friend who is an assistant coach in the NBA that every time I hear about mental health projects, it makes me nervous.  If they follow the beliefs about chemical imbalances (which after all is still what most people think causes depression and other problems) and start prescribing psychiatric drugs to players, there will be physical problems that won’t help rebounding and scoring points–and they won’t work anyway.
It was heartening to hear Mr. Silver use plain language like “unhappiness” and “isolation” rather than clinical terms.  That suggests to me that they may head a different direction and think about what kinds of supports to give players rather than standard mental health interventions.  The NBA can hopefully go back to earlier days before the internet and canned music on headphones and do a version of bus therapy. And peer supports.

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