National Basketball Association Commissioner Adam Silver made an important comment this week at the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference in Boston, saying that a lot of players are “unhappy” and acknowledging the very real impact of mental health problems on people, no matter how much fame or money they have.
As a benefits writer who occasionally covers mental health, I think it’s genuinely positive when a powerful figure makes a straightforward, sympathetic comment about mental health issues.
Still, I don’t agree with everything Silver said. According to CBS Sports, Silver said, “We are living in a time of anxiety. I think it’s a direct result of social media. A lot of players are unhappy.”
I contend that this argument is too simplistic. I’ve seen this argument before in research and reading, this concern that technology or social media is making people more depressed or anxious.
I prefer a more nuanced approach. Yes, social media has become increasingly ubiquitous over recent years and so has this trend of people being more open about mental health problems, but this sounds more like correlation than causation. That’s a topic worthy of more research.
Mental illness isn’t as simple as X caused Y. Being too focused on social media and technology’s impacts could blind you from other factors that could influence mental health, like personal or professional problems, going through a traumatic event or something physical like brain chemistry. In the context of the NBA, there are understandably some stressors specific to being a professional athlete.
I also don’t believe that mental illnesses are any more or less common than they have been historically. At least I haven’t seen or heard any convincing evidence of that. We need to acknowledge the very real fact that because of stigma, this wasn’t something that people talked about for a long time.
The lack of public acknowledgement doesn’t mean it did not exist. Whenever someone makes the “technology/social media causes mental problems” argument, I wonder if they’ve ever stopped to consider historical context. I wonder if they truly think depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, borderline personality disorder and panic attacks just didn’t happen before. That sounds naïve to me.
Regardless of my preference for a more nuanced take on the causes of mental health problems, I love seeing that the league commissioner is talking about it. This also led to me read about the NBA’s mental wellness program and the organization’s decision to hire a director of mental health and wellness.
The details of the mental health program are interesting. This story references the league’s old policies to deal with mental health problems, often by team physicians who had no expertise in mental health.
It talks about the NBA’s decision to create a wellness program and the time and considerations that went into it. Basically, this is a comprehensive case study that also brings up some philosophical questions about wellness programs.
It also brings up a noteworthy point about privacy and transparency. The wellness program is run independently of the teams, league and players’ union. According to the article, Michele Roberts, executive director of the National Basketball Players Association said, “We don’t want players to be discouraged from getting help when they need it because they’re concerned that it will get back to the team, or it may affect their play, or it may affect their next contract.” Yet, the article continues, “even that can be debated when it comes to wellness.”
Data privacy and health privacy are topics I care about, which is why it’s intriguing to find debates like this. This story makes a point that when more people are open and transparent about mental health, there’s less stigma.
Wanting anonymity when you’re seeking mental health treatment helps “contribute to the continued stigma.” Further, one former player expressed concern that when people want anonymity, people like him are then persecuted for being up front.
I get this to a certain degree, and I understand this person’s idealized version of the world where everyone can be open about everything and there’s no judgment or consequences. But mostly I prefer to be realistic.
In any organization’s wellness program, privacy should be a clear choice. Health information is private, and no employee should feel pressured to talk publicly about something they want to keep private. HIPAA exists for a reason. And, yes, HIPAA doesn’t apply to many wellness programs, but that doesn’t mean that organizations should respect employee health privacy any less.
As employers get increasingly involved in employees’ physical, mental and financial health, it’s worth a reminder that many people want privacy, and that a respectful employer doesn’t pry into people’s personal data.