Mental well-being a focal point for MLB, clubs

April 27th, 2021

When he lived a double life, concealing his sexuality from his baseball teammates and navigating the many struggles of that secret, Billy Bean tried to go it alone. His angst and his fear were overwhelming, and ultimately the only solution he could contrive was to walk away from the game completely.

“My life could have changed,” Bean says now, “if there was one sign on the wall that said there was someone I could talk to.”

That sign exists now. And Bean, in his role as a Major League Baseball vice president and special assistant to the Commissioner, is one of the people responsible for ensuring that current players know where to turn when they need help with their emotional, psychological and social well-being.

The pressures and stressors of professional sports are well-documented and, in many ways, more pronounced in the age of social media. But the past year has challenged and affected all of us in unprecedented ways, and athletes are not immune to the difficulty.

From the initial uncertainty of the 2020 Major League season even happening to navigating strict COVID-19 protocols that are still in effect to the loss of an entire Minor League season to the national reckoning over racial injustice, there has been plenty to process in a game whose daily grind already asks so much of its players.

“The issues that we had were just exacerbated by COVID,” says Dr. Larry Westreich, MLB’s consultant on behavioral health and addiction. “The isolation that happened, the fear of contagion that any rational human being would have during that time, exacerbated everything, as well as the loss of livelihood that was threatened or, in fact, happened to a lot of people within our industry.”

A recent Sports Illustrated story detailed a spate of players walking away from baseball for personal reasons. In that piece, Rays reliever Ryan Sherriff, who is working his way back to pitching form after leaving the team on April 3, detailed his struggles with mental health issues in the hope that he can inspire any peers dealing with the same problems to seek the help they need.

MLB also sees opportunity in this moment to emphasize to players the availability of its Employee Assistance Professional (EAP) program, which provides voluntary, free and confidential assessment, counseling, referrals and follow-up services to players, coaches and their families.

Every MLB team has at least one EAP trained to address a broad array of issues affecting mental and emotional well-being, such as alcohol or substance abuse, stress, grief, family issues or psychological disorders. The program has existed for more than 15 years and has been continually refined to meet the needs of a given moment, such as the COVID concerns that cropped up last year.

Though privacy concerns limit the league’s ability to advertise specific achievements, the program has had many success stories over the years.

Says Westreich: “We keep beating the drum of, ‘If you twist your ankle, you better see the athletic trainer. If you’ve got the yips, there's a mental skills coach. And if you feel anxious or depressed, there is a clinician on your team who can help you in the same way that you'd go for your twisted ankle.' And I think we’ve been very successful with that line of reasoning with players.”

The club-centric EAPs coordinate with expert consultants from the Commissioner’s Office to obtain additional guidance in these confidential dealings. And this program operates in addition to -- not in place of -- the mental skills coaches and sports psychologists that most Major League teams hire.

“It’s important for both our office and the [MLB Players’ Association] to develop policies that allow those structures to come into place,” says Jon Coyles, MLB vice president for drug, health and safety programs. “But I think the most effective model is really to have those boots-on-the-ground-type clinicians to be available, to be in the clubhouse, to be around -- maybe even be on club travel sometimes -- who can intervene at a moment's notice if it's an emergency situation. Most importantly, it's not some stranger coming in to try to help.”

The requirement that each club provide players, on a voluntary basis, with confidential psychology resources in a private space was included in the sport’s 2016 Collective Bargaining Agreement, and a Player Resource Center is also available online and via a mobile app to equip players with information on counselling and support.

This season’s health and safety protocols also included a requirement that educational and written materials related to mental health wellness also be made available to club personnel.

“That was really important,” says Coyles, “because last year was really hard, and this year, in some ways, is harder, because we can see that light at the end of the tunnel, but we’re not quite there yet.”

Beginning with the Rookie Career Development Programs held each winter and continuing with the “Ahead in the Count” program constructed for players in the instructional league and at the club academies in the Dominican Republic, MLB has attempted to make its youngest players aware of the resources that will be available to them for the length of their career.

What the league has found is that younger players are typically more comfortable reaching out for help, as their generation has been supplied with greater awareness of the importance of mental wellness.

“Our whole society is getting better at addressing these issues,” Westreich says. “What’s happening within baseball tracks with what's happening within sports in general and tracks with what happens in the general culture.”

In addition to the EAP program, MLB has promoted to clubs a method called a “Mental Health First Aid” in which non-clinicians -- such as coaches or athletic trainers -- are trained to listen to their co-worker’s issues and perhaps refer them to a trained professional.

To deserve or require professional attention, a player’s personal problems don’t necessarily have to be as stark as what Bean once wrestled with. For a teenager from the Dominican, for example, homesickness can be a particularly powerful stressor. Other players might have a child having trouble focusing at a new school after a trade.

Any of these issues can affect a player’s performance or basic enjoyment of coming to work on a daily basis.

Bean has stressed to today’s players that mental wellness is every bit as important as a daily fitness routine. He has tried to dispel the old stereotypes and stigmas historically attached to mental health therapy. Such therapy was not readily or easily available to Bean when he needed it most as a player in the 1990s, and so he knows, more than most, what a valuable resource it can be -- particularly in times like these.

“It’s an amazing evolution,” says Bean, “from where baseball used to be when I played it to where we are now.”