NBA updates mental health policies amid ongoing pandemic

NBA Commissioner Adam Silver speaks at a news conference before an NBA preseason basketball game. (Jae C. Hong, File, AP)

The NBA is urging teams to make increased commitments toward providing mental health resources to players and staff, releasing updated guidelines Wednesday to reflect the challenge of playing amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

The league told teams they should establish "education and awareness materials focused on managing mental health during times of uncertainty and coping strategies for addressing the emotional toll of the pandemic.''

"Given the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, taking care of one's mental health and having access to resources are important aspects of managing the feelings of anxiety, uncertainty, and stress that have characterized much of 2020 and will in all likelihood be present during the 2020-21 season,'' the league wrote in a memo obtained by The Associated Press.

The NBA has mandated that teams offer access to mental health professionals in recent seasons — a program the league calls Mind Health was launched nearly three years ago — but that obviously predates the pandemic and how countless aspects of day-to-day life has changed in recent months.

Most arenas don't have fans and those that do only allow a limited number of people at games. Players and coaches are tested daily, travel parties have been pared down from what used to be normal and, starting Tuesday, those on the bench to start a game must wear masks until they enter the contest. Those are a few of the ways the NBA has changed amid the virus.

"All this is a little bit like the Twilight Zone,'' Miami coach Erik Spoelstra said when asked about the mental strain of playing amid a pandemic. "Everything looks the same. In many ways, it can operate in a similar way. But we all know it is different. And that has a different effect on different people, for sure.''

Part of the new guidance from the league: that social distancing guidelines still need to be followed when mental health services are provided at a team facility, and that teams should offer "ample availability for telehealth services'' where players can meet with mental health professionals.

Those are in addition to existing requirements put in place last year and remaining for the 2020-21 season regarding making mental health professionals available to players on a voluntary basis, having a licensed psychiatrist available to assist players with any issues, having procedures in place to ensure confidentiality and, more recently, offering services that "should be culturally competent ... and meet the needs of the diverse NBA community.''

"We're trying to have an environment where everybody feels like they can come to our team setting, plug in, be themselves, focus on their craft and be around like-minded people,'' Oklahoma City coach Mark Daigneault said. "What we believe is if we build that environment where everybody is thriving ... then if there are stressors that are related to health or where we're at as a country or just the natural stressors of an NBA season, then that environment can raise the level of our players and we can all support each other.''

In a separate move Wednesday, the National Basketball Coaches Association released the quarterly health bulletin that it sends to members, also addressing mental health.

"The usage of mental health tools and support platforms has increased as have the modalities to assist those in need. These include meditation apps, journaling, engaging in therapy with a professional or a support group as well as other mindful techniques, such as yoga,'' the NBCA wrote.

Mental health has been a priority for the NBA and the National Basketball Players Association in recent years, especially after players like Cleveland's Kevin Love and San Antonio's DeMar DeRozan opened up about their inner struggles with anxiety and other issues. Many players also spoke out this past summer about the strain of being isolated during the NBA's restart bubble at Walt Disney World in Central Florida.

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