Belcher Tragedy Highlights Need for Mental Health Resources

The NFL community and the Kansas City Chiefs were stunned Saturday as reports circulated that Chiefs’ linebacker Jovan Belcher, 25, allegedly killed his girlfriend and then drove to Arrowhead Stadium and turned the gun on himself.  The event was even more traumatic to the team as the suicide occurred at the team’s facilities and in front of head coach Romeo Crennel, general manager Scott Pioli and another Chiefs’ employee.

Only 24 hours after the incident, the Chiefs are preparing to play the Carolina Panthers on Sunday, as the team and the NFL have elected to go ahead with Sunday’s game.  This tragedy and the repercussions shed a spotlight on mental health issues that player face.

Dr. John Sullivan

We spoke with Pro Player Insider, Dr. John Sullivan, a sport psychologist with over 12 years of experience working with NFL players, about the issues.  He highlighted the importance of working with the team and the survivors.

“This is an extremely tragic and traumatic incident, and it’s critical to get the right resources to work with the coaches and players as they move forward,” Dr. Sullivan said.  While there have been losses in the past where the NFL has played a game shortly after a tragedy, including the murder of Redskins safety Sean Taylor in 2007 and the suicide of Broncos’ wide receiver Kenny McKinley in 2010, never before has an event been like this – occurring at the facility and in front of coaches.

“NFL teams are very close, like a family, and to not only lose a member of your family but to have it happen so violently and in front of coaches puts an extremely high level of stress and emotional trauma on the team,” Dr. Sullivan went on.  “Playing the game may be therapeutic for some of the players, but to be asked to perform following an event like this adds another level of stress and emotion to a situation that will already be taxing the emotional reserves of the team and coaches.

“There will be a myriad of reactions – some immediate, some delayed, and some long term – and there is a need for psychological first aid and continued access to mental health professionals.” Sullivan says that currently only  a handful of NFL teams employ a clinical sports psychologist on either a full time or a part time basis.  He believes the needs and stresses that professional athletes face are unique, and the ability to focus on their needs requires a trained professional.

“There is a great deal of focus on caring for the athletes’ bodies, but sometimes caring for the athletes’ minds gets short shrift,” Dr. Sullivan added, noting that societal prejudices play a role in this.  “Unfortunately, there is a stigma of mental health that people would rather not face.  Sometimes this prevents players from getting the best care.”

“The irony is that improving clinical care would also improve performance on the field.  Performance issues are clinical issues and clinical issues are performance issues,” Sullivan added.

As we move forward, questions need to be asked about whether concussions or repeated sub-concussive blows could have ultimately played a role with Belcher.  While we may never know direct causes, it is impossible to ignore a pattern of suicides of current and former NFL players that includes Belcher, McKinley and former NFL players like Junior Seau and Dave Duerson.

“It’s impossible to know exactly what caused the incident, and it would be in appropriate to speculate,” Dr. Sullivan stated.  “But in a broader sense, the science tells us a lot.  There have been demonstrated links between concussion, mild traumatic brain injuries and changes in personality.  Football is a violent sport and concussions are going to happen, but we need to do a better job of providing care for both the athlete’s mind and body. Improving the level of care is critical not only to identify troubled athletes in order to prevent another tragic loss, but also to ensure that athletes with less dramatic problems can go on to have the long term quality of life that they deserve.”

To learn more about expert sports psychologist Dr. Sullivan click here.

By Dr. John Sullivan and John Lanzafame

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