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Where’s the WNBA’s mental health program?

In light of the NBA implementing a more comprehensive mental health program, it is worth asking whether the WNBA will take similar action. Here’s why the WNBA needs to provide mental health support for its players. 

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Minnesota Lynx v Las Vegas Aces
Liz Cambage’s honesty about her mental health struggles should encourage the WNBA to provide support for players.
Photo by Jeff Bottari/NBAE via Getty Images

As first reported by The Athletic, the NBA recently released a memo instructing all 30 teams to expand and intensify their mental health support services. According to Sam Amick, the memo requires teams to:

Retain and make available to players on a voluntary basis one to two mental health professionals who are licensed in their field and locality, and with experience in assessing and treating clinical mental health issues.

Identify a licensed psychiatrist (M.D. or D.O.) to be available to assist in managing player mental health issues.

Enact a written action plan for mental health emergencies.

Put in place procedures for communicating to players and team staff the team’s practices with respect to privacy and confidentiality.

Attend a Sept. 12 “health and wellness meeting” in Chicago where these matters will be discussed and analyzed even further.

Will the WNBA implement similar standards?

Or, as Las Vegas Aces superstar center Liz Cambage put it in her recent editorial in The Players’ Tribune:

Something I’ve been thinking a lot about this week is the NBA’s new rule — which says that every team has to have a mental health professional on staff. I’ve seen a lot of people praise the league for the rule, and for being so forward about mental health in general. And I’m one of those people. I think it’s a great thing they’re doing, and it’s going to help their players, for sure. They deserve a ton of credit.

But at the same time, I won’t lie — it’s disappointing to me that we’re praising anyone for “progress,” when so many women are being excluded from it. I mean….. doesn’t the WNBA deserve this same program?

WNBA players and mental health awareness

In recent years, WNBA players have been just as, if not more, forthcoming and forthright about their mental health struggles as NBA stars.

Most notably, Cambage has been open about her struggles with depression. She also frequently uses her Instagram stories to share her challenges, something that has earned her many fans and much support. In her aforementioned editorial, she explained that her recent absence from the court was due to anxiety and depression, writing:

I wanted to let everyone know that my mental health….. it got caught up in the rip last week. And it wasn’t pretty. It was actually pretty ugly. But I also wanted to let everyone know that I didn’t drown. I’m still here, and still fighting this battle on a daily basis. And with the help of my family, and friends, and doctors, and amazing teammates and coaches and support system on the Aces, I’m going to keep fighting it.

Other prominent players who have shared their stories include Breanna Stewart and Imani McGee-Stafford.

Writing in The Players’ Tribune in the fall of 2017, Stewart, the soon-to-be Seattle Storm MVP, wrote of the sexual abuse she suffered, opening up to facilitate her own healing and that of others. Dallas Wings center Imani McGee-Stafford also has been honest about the traumas of sexual abuse. As recently recounted by Dorothy Gentry in The Athletic, McGee-Stafford thrice attempted suicide before eventually finding a semblance of peace through basketball and poetry. She has established the Hoops & Hope Foundation in an effort to destigmatize sexual abuse and mental illness in the black community and, in her words, offer “hope and life for people who don’t necessarily have that in their lives.”

Additionally, the tears Indiana Fever guard Erica Wheeler shed as she received her All-Star Game MVP trophy were evidence of the emotional challenges she still deals with following the death of her mother.

Former players also have assumed this mantle. In 2013, Chamique Holdsclaw, the Tennessee Lady Volunteer legend turned 1999 WNBA No. 1 overall draft pick, pleaded guilty to aggravated assault and possession of a firearm following an incident with her then-girlfriend.

She later has admitted to attempting suicide.

Instead of hiding from these painful moments, Holdsclaw owned them and has since dedicated her post-competitive basketball life to sharing her mental health journey. The recently retired Cappie Pondexter likewise has used her platform to advocate for mental wellness and engages in activist efforts in her hometown of Chicago.

Players’ openness has encouraged teams to promote mental wellness, including some that have undertaken season-long initiatives that concern issues connected to mental health. For instance, the Sparks’ Spark the True You campaign “educates, assists, and activates a growing community of support across Southern California for women in active duty, women veterans, and their families who are looking for ways to be successful and achieve their ultimate physical, spiritual, emotional, mental health and well-being goals.”

Teams also have held pregame and postgame events that touch on the mental struggles of women, people of color and the LGBTQ+ community. Led by guard Layshia Clarendon, the Sun hosted a postgame LGBTQ+ youth panel in July. The Liberty recently organized a panel, “Forgotten Behind Bars: Women’s Health Care, Family and Representation,” where community leaders discussed “how our criminal justice system unjustly affects women, society’s role of marginalizing female prisoners and solutions for change.”

This work must be applauded.

But the WNBA must ensure that it cares for the mental well-being of its players if it wants its players to continue performing at a high level, both on the court and in the community. As Cambage makes clear, addressing the mental health of athletes, as well as of all people, demands serious, uncomfortable conversations.

She asserts:

It was really important to me to not just “clear the air” here. I didn’t want to say ‘just enough’ about what happened so that people would stop asking questions. I didn’t want to shout out, ‘HASHTAG MENTAL HEALTH!!!!’ — and then have that be the end of it.

All the more, making a career in the WNBA and women’s professional basketball can induce mental challenges because of the inherent issues of gender, race and sexual orientation.

The mental strains of the game

Yes, the ability to play basketball professionally is a privilege. But it is a privilege that can come with a price, including a mental one.

As Erica Wheeler proclaims, WNBA players are a “rare breed.” With only 144 roster spots available each season, intense pressures are ever-present. Even college stars can struggle to establish their place in the league, a situation that can cause mental stress since such players are not accustomed to having their basketball ability not be enough. For many of the players who do earn roster spots, those spots are never secure. Additionally, most players spend the WNBA offseason overseas, which takes them away from the support of family and friends.

Cambage, whose excellence makes her place in the WNBA and any other league guaranteed, expresses the difficulties caused by the constancy of the women’s pro game:

It’s hard: For someone who travels as much as I do — who has to make her living on the road eight months out of the year — relationships are incredibly important. But at the same time, they’re incredibly hard to maintain.

Furthermore, while social media can allow for the sharing of mental struggles, these platforms also can contribute to such struggles, with players — expected to use their social profiles to advertise themselves, their teams and the league, — often encountering misogynistic, racist and/or homophobic comments.

These challenges, combined with any personal problems a player encounters, point to the importance of mental health for WNBA players and, in turn, the importance of the WNBA providing mental health support for them.

An area for commissioner Cathy Engelbert to take action

The upcoming CBA negotiations present an opportunity for the league and WNBPA to establish a comprehensive mental health initiative. Or, Cathy Engelbert could assert her authority as commissioner, following the example of the NBA’s executive office by issuing a memo that requires WNBA teams to provide mental health services.

Although her hiring was widely praised, the early days of Engelbert’s tenure have been characterized by inaction. Most disappointing was her hesitancy to address in an actionable way the domestic assault allegations against Riquana Williams and Natasha Howard.

Writing in The Athletic, Swish Appeal’s Tamryn Spruill shared Engelbert’s response to a question about the league’s domestic violence policy at an All-Star weekend press conference:

I think we do have an absolute opportunity, but first let me say we take all of these situations seriously and investigate allegations. But we do have this opportunity because we are in CBA negotiations to talk with the players and to come up with resources and training and discipline and bring clarity to this issue. But certainly a very top priority for me.

Analyzing Engelbert’s comment, Spruill writes:

Engelbert could have made a statement by addressing the issue in her opening remarks and delivering a plan for immediate action that is neither contingent on the future CBA currently under negotiation nor in violation of the current one. Although discipline for allegations, arrests or convictions for domestic violence cannot be enacted outside of the current CBA, the development of an immediate plan to allocate resources and training to allow the players accused to get help is not prohibited.

In proposing a comprehensive mental health program for WNBA teams, Engelbert could introduce an equitable, progressive domestic assault policy. While all individuals and their circumstances are unique, studies suggest a strong correlation between domestic violence and mental health disorders. Instead of following the example of men’s sports leagues by punishing players accused of domestic assault through suspensions, the WNBA could require players to take a break from their team to go through a mental wellness program.

A similar protocol could be implemented for players who have been accused of crimes connected to substance abuse, such as the drunk driving arrest of Odyssey Sims, as the abuse of substances can be an indicator of mental illness. With these initiatives, the league would signal to players its commitment toward making the WNBA exemplary of “the kind of world we want to live in.”

In the end, the WNBA should not just implement a mental health program to perform the “progress” Cambage references. What is most important is that the WNBA and its team are, in the words of Cambage, “treating someone as a human being.”