How the NBA is Continuing the Conversation Around Mental Health

A discussion with Dr. Kensa Gunter, PsyD, CMPC

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

By training, I am a licensed psychologist and a Certified Mental Performance Consultant. Basically, what that means is that I work with athletes and performers in areas of mental health and mental performance. I have a private practice and I’m based in Atlanta.

The earlier part of my career was spent working in college counseling centers. I enjoyed working with college students and that setting allowed me an opportunity to work with athletes because of the student-athlete population. 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 a consultant with the Mind Health program.

What is the Mind Health program?

Mind Health is the NBA’s mental health and wellness platform. What we try to do is provide education, resources and increase awareness across the NBA family as it relates to mental health and well-being. This includes all 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?

If I think about where I am and where we are now, at the forefront of my mind is thinking through how we can amplify and spread this message even farther to a larger number of people, helping everyone understand the importance of taking care of your mental health. Not just talking about it but moving beyond that to really taking care of it, the same way we take care of other aspects of ourselves.

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

I think the trend is moving upward. The movement around decreasing stigma in sport is really being led by the athletes. What we’re seeing is not only this 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. The athlete part is what they do, but they are people independent of that.

In the world of sport, in addition to more stories being shared, there’s been more awareness of how important the mind and the body are to performance.

“It’s understanding that the body is one component, but if your mind is not in the game, then you’re missing a huge part of what’s going to produce that optimal performance.” 

Define mental toughness.

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 and determined and to go that extra mile to develop your craft. Mental toughness can be developed and that’s where mental skills come into play and when mental performance training could be helpful.

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

It’s essential. Managing the amount of uncertainty, the amount of change and the amount of loss that we’ve all collectively experienced this year is incredibly difficult. And as a result, we’ve seen reports about increases in people experiencing symptoms of anxiety, depression, stress and burnout.

The ability to pause and check in with yourself is really important because that allows you to acknowledge and name what you’re feeling and experiencing, to identify where you can adjust and to hopefully tap into coping strategies that can help you in managing the stress that is inherent in our current individual and collective reality.

Also, the current state of our world includes the pandemic, but it also includes an increased awareness about racial injustice and 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 have led efforts around activism and helped 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.

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.
  • Walking: I don’t necessarily mean running or power walking. I mean movement 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 walk for 10-15 minutes, I think that’s relaxation.
  • Connecting with people: When I think of relaxing, I also think of recharging. I think of connecting with people who feed and fuel you. That’s important now because we’re in the time where we are not able to be physically close to the people we love and care about. I think it can be relaxing, calming and reenergizing to connect with people so you realize you’re not in this alone.

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