NFLPA looks at curbing mental illness through wellness

The National Football League (NFL) oversees approximately 2, 200 players and together with the National Football League Players Association (NFLPA) they have developed and adapted COVID-19 health and wellness protocols to help ensure that players were keeping their minds in the best possible shape while the world was dealing with the pandemic.

The NFLPA represents all players and they dedicate themselves to the wellness of those players both on and off the field. Dr. Amber Cargill is the Director of Player Wellness for the NFLPA and it is her job to ensure that all active players have the resources and support they need to be successful.

Active players have resources available to them that can help with drug and substance abuse, counseling and mental health, and also psychological resources that focus on helping players ease their minds through meditation and breathing practices.

“We’re constantly looking for resources for them, whether that be new apps or new partnerships with companies that are doing innovative stuff in this space,” Cargill said.

Cargill began her role with the NFLPA just four months before the pandemic hit, making her first year as director one unlike any before. During the pandemic, the NFLPA started the wellness triangle for the players which focused on training, nutrition, and mental wellness. Cargill specializes in the wellness end of the triangle.

Before joining the NFLPA, Cargill had her own private practice as a licensed clinical and sports psychologist. She has over 15 years of experience in her field and she takes mental health and wellness very seriously. In 2019, before Cargill became director, the NFL and NFLPA reached an agreement that anything the NFLPA does in the mental health space would be done jointly with the NFL.

The two sides share a committee of mental health professionals and while Cargill focuses on the players as individuals, the NFL focuses more so on coaches, staff, and the organization as a whole. Cargill says that the stigma of mental health in NFL locker rooms is getting better, players are more likely to reach out for help. Cargill makes sure that posters with information on when/how to reach out for help are up in every locker room and around team facilities.

The goal is to make finding help as easy as possible so that no one who is in need of help can’t find it. When the pandemic hit, everything changed, players were now on their own and away from team facilities. Cargill wanted to be sure that her players were still able to find the help they needed.

The NFLPA website for active players is just a login screen away from a vast catalog of resources that are available to them. Staff around the league also knew the importance mental health would play during the pandemic and into the season. Reggie Scott, vice president of Sports Medicine and Performance for the Los Angeles Rams, said he has placed an emphasis on players being in shape, both physically and mentally.

“It [the pandemic] has changed our new normal and it affects everyone differently,” Scott said. “ We really want to take the time to, not only physically, but from the mental and emotional standpoint that they [the players] are up to par because that could be a missing piece if we don’t think about that.”

The NFLPA has helped a lot of players get help and Cargill says that the best part of her job is seeing the young men in the league take the steps to ensure their wellness. She has received many letters from current and former players who reach out to her to say thank you for what the treatments have done for their lives. Cargill will only take a small amount of credit for her role though, she credits the many people behind the scenes that work so hard.

“There is a support system around me, from my boss and our executive director and our NFLPA president to do this, so I can’t be in this role if I don’t have their support,” Cargill said.

One of the most important things for Cargill is not only that the players have access to resources but that they know exactly how to utilize those resources. So much of what the NFLPA focuses on is making sure that players know how to reach for help even when they’re away from the team.

“Creating an environment where people feel comfortable talking about these things is so critical for success in treating anxiety or depression,” Scott said.

Featured Image: Courtesy of Los Angeles Rams