How the NBA is Continuing the Conversation Around Mental Health

Catching up with Dr. Kensa Gunter, PsyD, CMPC

Tell us a little about yourself and how you become involved with the NBA.

Dr. Kensa Gunter: By training, I am a licensed psychologist and a Certified Mental Performance Consultant. I’m based in Atlanta, GA and through my private practice, I provide counseling and consultation services in the areas of mental health and mental performance to individuals, teams and organizations.

The earlier part of my career was spent working in college counseling centers. I enjoyed working with college students and that setting also allowed me an opportunity to work with athletes by connecting with the student-athlete community. From there, I branched off into the private sector, where I worked with a wide range of culturally diverse clients with a focus on providing services to athletes and those in the African American community.

While in private practice, my involvement in the pro sports space really began through different consulting opportunities. Working at the league level started in 2018 when I was invited to participate in the NBA Summer Meetings in Las Vegas. From there, it turned into a consulting relationship with the NBA and I was brought on in 2020 to serve as the Director of the Mind Health Program.

What is the Mind Health program?

KG: Mind Health is the NBA’s mental health and wellness platform. What we are working to do is implement a comprehensive program whereby we listen to, educate, provide resources, and increase awareness across the NBA family as it relates to mental health and wellbeing. This includes all of our player leagues, coaches, referees, and staff. We’re trying to create a healthy community and spread the message about the importance of mental health far and wide.

What's your goal with the program?

KG: Our goal is to humanize mental health and position it as an essential element of wellness and excellence both on and off the court. We think and talk about mental health in the context of a person’s lived experience which is shaped by things that happen in their personal lives but is also impacted by their social environment and the things that happen in the world around them. We view mental health as a continuum so we are focused on providing resources and encouraging people to seek help and treatment when needed. Our goal is to expand the conversation about mental health to include discussions about what people can do to proactively maintain and enhance their mental wellness. Within the world of sport, we recognize the relationship between health and performance so we also want to provide resources in the area of mental performance by highlighting the mental skills that can help elevate performance.

How has the stigma of mental health in sports evolved over the years?

KG: I think things are shifting and that. this movement around decreasing stigma in sport is in many ways being led by the athletes. What we’ve seen in the last several years is not only the courage that they’re displaying in sharing their stories and journeys as it relates to mental health, but I also think what is being communicated there is this real desire to have people understand that they are athletes but they are also human. Participating in sport is what they do, but they are people independent of that.

In addition to more stories being shared, there’s been an increased awareness of the importance of both the mind and the body to performance. They are connected and if you’re not intentionally training and taking care of your mind, you’re missing out on developing a major part of what contributes to optimal performance.

Define mental toughness.

KG: The ability to handle the adversity that’s inherent in competition and striving for greatness. Being locked in and focused and being able to handle the setbacks and the failures that are all a part of the process. Having a work ethic that allows you to be committed, determined and consistent in the process of developing your craft. Mental toughness can be developed and that’s where developing mental skills and working with a mental performance consultant could be helpful.

With the current state of our world, how important is it to check in with yourself?

KG: It’s essential. Managing and navigating the amount of uncertainty, change, and loss that we’ve all collectively experienced in the last few years, in addition to whatever we’ve encountered in our personal lives has, for many, been exhausting and difficult. Consequently, the number of people who’ve reported experiencing symptoms of anxiety, depression, stress and burnout has increased.

The ability to pause and check-in with yourself is really important for a number of reasons: 1. It increases your self-awareness and gives you space to acknowledge and name what you’re feeling and experiencing. 2. It helps you to identify coping strategies that may be helpful in this moment and 3. The increased self-awareness can help you recognize when you need to reach out to your support network or a professional for additional support and assistance.

In addition to the pandemic, we are still facing ongoing civil and human rights-related situations, domestically and abroad and there are continued demands for change as it relates to creating a more just and equitable society. Particularly within the NBA family, we’ve seen athletes as activists emerge even more. The NBA & WNBA continue to lead efforts around activism and work to give voice and bring attention to different communities that have historically been silenced or overlooked.

Anytime you're engaging in activism and advocacy work, there's an emotional toll that goes along with that. People need to be checking in with themselves as they continue to invest and engage in that work from the standpoint of making sure they're also taking care of themselves. It's important to understand that at times you may need to take a step back, recharge and then get back in it.

Anytime you’re engaging in activism and advocacy, there’s an emotional toll that accompanies that work. People need to be checking in with themselves as they continue to invest and engage in that work from the standpoint of making sure they’re also taking care of themselves. It’s important to understand that at times you may need to take a step back, recharge and then get back into the work.

Any recommended relaxation techniques?

  • Meditation: This is one of my top three relaxation strategies. It really does force us to be still for a minute and just detach and be in the moment. It’s really hard to do that when you’re worried about the future or longing for the past and what used to feel like “normal.” Having something that forces you to be in the moment can be really powerful and helpful in terms of relaxation and calming your mind.
  • Get moving: Whether you run, walk, rollerblade, engage in chair yoga, whatever you do, incorporate movement into your life. If possible, combine this with being outside. Being in nature has a very relaxing, calming and soothing effect on many of us. Movement is really helpful, not only for mental health but for physical health. If people are physically able to do so and are in a place where they can get out and engage in some physical activity for 10-15 minutes, that can have direct effects on one’s overall wellness.
  • Connecting with people: When I think of relaxing, I also think of recharging. I think of connecting with people who feed and fuel you. We’ve learned first-hand about the impacts of not being able to be physically close to the people we love and care about. So if we can, we should be intentional about spending time with our people. It can be relaxing, calming and reenergizing and it can also serve as a reminder that you’re not on this journey alone.
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