Dan Quinn

Photo: � 2019 Cox Media Group.
Photo: � 2019 Cox Media Group.

NFL, Falcons more comfortable addressing mental-health issues 

It’s that time of the NFL offseason when teams are comparing 40-yard dash times, bench-press lifts and three-cone drill times.

The 32 teams have gathered all of the data to determine if the draft prospects are fast enough and strong enough to play in the NFL. That information helps to put a value on the players, who are then ranked on each team’s board for the draft, which is set for April 25-27 in Nashville, Tenn.

The next step, which the league is moving toward, is assessing the prospects mental health and wellness. 

“A great performance starts with a healthy mind,” said Semaj White, founder and chief executive officer of the Hero Advocacy Group in Las Vegas. “You are talking about the ability to perform, and if there is any post-traumatic stress, if there is any heightened anxiety, if there is any depression, if any of that exists, it is going to conversely affect the athlete’s ability to perform at his highest level.”

Teams put players through a battery of medical and physical tests at the NFL scouting combine. 

“That’s just like the ability to read plays, the ability to follow instruction and the ability to perform or execute in various areas of which an individual is paid to do,” White said. “It’s definitely more difficult when an individual is not healthy mentally.”

White contends that mental-health assessments should be added to the list. 

“Mental health, if it’s not even checked or assessed, that individual is not going to perform,” said White, who described his firm as an holistic advocacy agency that focuses on the whole individual’s mental health, behavior health, physical health and spiritual well-being. “I don’t care how much you practice or how many times you drill them, he’s not going to ever come back to the level of optimal performance.” 

Since 2012, the NFL, partially in response to the suicide of former All-star linebacker Junior Seau, launched a Total Wellness program, with the goal of de-stigmatizing players’ efforts to seek mental-health resources. 

NFL players and their families have access to up to eight counseling sessions per year through their insurance benefit packages. 

“Each club created a space for either a full-time clinician to be in a service space with the players as well as made some available frequently throughout the season for the players,” said Arthur McAfee, the NFL’s senior vice president of player engagement. “A majority of the clubs … have been taking it seriously for quite some time.”

The NFL also created a free and confidential, around-the-clock, mental wellness and suicide-prevention hotline and online chat resource. NFL Life Line has trained counselors on specific issues that current, former players and their families face.

“We’ve been working with each of the clinicians and our staff to de-stigmatize the need and use of clinical services for the players and their well being,” McAfee said. “We are in the process of continuing to grow with all of our efforts to support the players.”

The Falcons had a brush with a mental-health issue this offseason when defensive end Takk McKinley was detained by Los Angeles police in January and underwent a mental evaluation. 

Falcons coach Dan Quinn said the team took the incident seriously

“We will do everything we possibly can to support and assist Takk as our players’ mental and physical well-being are always our top priority,” Quinn said. 

McKinley, the Falcons’ first-round pick in the 2017 draft, was deemed fine and returned to Oakland to be with his family.

“Right now, in my opinion, it’s been awesome to see that topic, knowing that it’s OK to speak about now,” Quinn said. “Where maybe years ago, when a lot of us started, maybe we’d pushed that aside. To have that out and be able to talk about it, it’s only going to be stronger and stronger as we go.”

Quinn started coaching in the NFL in 2001.

“I think for the group of players that are coming into the NFL to know that it’s OK to say I’m having an issue with something,” Quinn said. “To reach out for help, we have fantastic resources (with) each team and throughout the NFL. Let’s make sure that every single player knows how to use those resources. I think we are making good strides for sure.”

In September, the Panthers hired Tish Guerin as their director of player wellness. She was one of the first in-house psychological clinicians in the NFL.

Also, the NFL hired Nyaka NiiLampti, who was formerly the NFLPA’s director of player of wellness, as the league’s vice president of wellness and clinical services. NiiLampti is a licensed psychologist with more than 15 years of clinical experience with organizations, sports teams, individuals and families.

The Falcons don’t list the medical or wellness staff on their team directory. 

“I think the biggest one is counseling,” Quinn said when asked of the services available to his team. “Sometimes its teammate to teammate, that’s counseling. Other times, its professional help to deal with some things that maybe a teammate is not equip to. Having access on a regular basis to counseling and having some other opinions to talk through things, that helps a lot.

“More than anything, I’d say access to guys who are more trained than coaches and teammates to help a guy through a certain scenario.”

Minnesota when through a highly publicized mental-health issue last season with starting defensive end Everson Griffen. The team interceded to get him help.

“I felt we had everything in place to help our specific player (Griffen) get through it, and he was able to come back on the field and play for us,” Minnesota general manager Rick Spielman said. “But I think what general managers maybe had to deal with 10 years ago is a lot different than what we have to deal with today.”

In addition to mental health, social justice and social media also are new issues.

“I think the more that we’re able to educate ourselves, the better we’ll be able to handle, just in general, situations that do pop up that maybe we didn’t have to deal with 10 years ago,” Spielman said. 

McAfee was pleased with the outcome of the Minnesota case.

“Our clinicians, trainers and team doctors are all around the players as a support group,” McAfee said. “They are in position to provide assistance to players in times of need in terms of getting them and directing them to the right resources.” 

Los Angeles Chargers coach Anthony Lynn, who played in the league for six seasons (1993, 1995-99), has noticed the change from his playing days to now with how the league deals with mental-health issues. 

“It’s so much better,” Lynn said. “I think we’ve just poured the resources into that and you can see it.”

Houston general manager Brian Gaine also is a proponent of mental-health awareness.

“That’s something we spend a lot of time on,” Gaine said. “We’ve invested a lot of resources at the Texans in terms of the wellness of the players and the resources for them. “We’ve put some things in place to start those advancements and make those resources available to our players. That’s an important part of what we refer to as player wellness.”

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