Addressing mental health, Panthers hire Director of Player Wellness

Shalise Manza Young
·Yahoo Sports Columnist

More and more, professional athletes are stepping forward to share their struggles with mental health. Longtime NFL receiver Steve Smith Sr. revealed last month that he’s battled depression for years; around the same time, on the eve of his induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, Brian Dawkins shared his own career-long depression battle.

This week, Minnesota Vikings defensive lineman Everson Griffen underwent an evaluation after a hotel incident that apparently came after weeks of those inside and around the team worrying about his mental health.

At least one team, the Carolina Panthers, has taken a step to help ensure its players have better success dealing with their mental health as well as their physical health.

Panthers hire Director of Player Wellness

Among the many changes new owner David Tepper has overseen with the Panthers is the hiring of a director of player wellness. Those within the organization, including coach Ron Rivera, advocated for better mental health support, and so the team has hired 35-year-old Tish Guerin to do just that.

The Carolina Panthers have hired a director of player wellness to make sure players are doing as well mentally as they are physically. (AP)
The Carolina Panthers have hired a director of player wellness to make sure players are doing as well mentally as they are physically. (AP)

Many teams contract with an outside mental health counselor or group, but Guerin will be in-house as a full-time clinician, working with players and, if necessary, their families.

Guerin is a Charlotte native, and according to a story by the Charlotte Observer’s Jourdan Rodrigue, pitched the idea of NFL teams having a mental health clinician on staff two years ago to a contact she has at the NFL Players’ Association. She believes having someone around full-time can build more trust with players.

‘I always knew I was going to do this’

Guerin told Rodrigue, “I always knew I was going to do this. I didn’t know in what capacity, but I knew that I was going to be working with people.”

“I hope that everyone will see the benefit of having someone full-time on staff who the players can use as a resource. The hope is that you’ll see fewer issues or recurrences off the field. The hope is that anything that could have been taking them out of their head for the game (will be gone), because they’re talking to someone about it and working through it. … My hope is that I’ll be over-utilized,” she said.

Mark Carrier, who served as the Panthers’ director of player engagement before being promoted to assistant to the general manager this year, put some programs in place to help address mental health; Guerin will build on those but also create new ones.

Her hope is that she fosters an atmosphere where players are “open to being open,” and that mental health check-ins are as normal as check ins with the training staff.

“It’s going to be imperative that I hear from (the players): What is it that you need?,” Guerin said. “What do you feel like you’re missing? In terms of your emotional and mental health, what are you doing to take care of yourself?”

Everyone is dealing with something

Carolina receiver Torrey Smith has been open about his hardest mental health moments, which came after the death of his brother, Tevin, in a 2012 motorcycle accident.

“I couldn’t sleep. Couldn’t eat. Was losing weight,” Smith said. “It probably was depression…It might seem weird to say that, but when you think about what they say it is, and the moods, the fog… I experienced all of those.”

Rivera’s older brother died of pancreatic cancer just before the opening of training camp in 2015, which didn’t give him much time to mourn and process his grief. He put his head down and went to work after the funeral, and when he came up for air after the Panthers’ loss in Super Bowl 50, he broke down.

“There are times where you can’t turn it on and off. You really don’t have a chance to grieve,” Rivera said. “It’s a tough moment. But while other things are happening, you have to be able to continue.”

In addition to Smith and Rivera, Guerin will have at least one other advocate in the locker room: running back Christian McCaffrey. McCaffrey was roomates at Stanford with 49ers defensive end Solomon Thomas, who lost his sister to suicide in January, has been outspoken about mental health and suicide prevention, and McCaffrey has lent his voice as well.

“I know in this locker room, if anybody were to have an issue mentally I can’t think of one person who wouldn’t be willing to help them,” McCaffrey said. “I just encourage anybody who is going through it to talk to somebody about it, and do what you have to do to get it off your chest. To seek help. Because it really is important.”

Growing up, men in particular are told not to cry, not to be vulnerable, and it’s stressed even more in football, where the notion of being tough and strong prevails. Guerin knows that’s something she’s up against, not just in the Panthers’ locker room, but in society in general.

“I think that a lot of times people forget that the warriors you watch on Sunday are also human,” she said. “They can have depression. They can have high stress — and of course, the job itself is high-stress. But are they dealing with it? How are they dealing with it?…

“My goal in this position is to drop the veil of shame. There is no shame in this. Everyone in the world has problems that they’re going through. They have triumphs, pitfalls. Peaks and valleys.

“Everyone has something.”