Recent NFL retiree and probable Hall of Famer, Steve Smith, is the all-time receiving leader for the Carolina Panthers. In August of 2018, as NFL training camps were in full swing, Smith penned an essay that detailed the way his battle with depression left him “trapped, inferior and alone,” despite his on-field success.
Very powerful words from a man with a lot of influence in Carolina, and people took notice.
About a month after Smith shared his story, the Panthers made a historic move, hiring mental health therapist Tish Guerin as their Director of Player Wellness.
Guerin, a Winston-Salem State University graduate with a master’s degree from the University of South Carolina, is the first in-house psychological clinician in the NFL. Her role, while still a work in progress, is to help players deal with off-field mental hits rather than in-game injuries.
Part of Guerin’s role is being available to players, staff, and family members at all times. She is accessible on-site in her office at Bank of America Stadium, but also by text, email and telephone.
“Everyone knows how to contact me and when players need me they reach out,” Guerin said. “If they have a question or just want to shoot the breeze they know they can grab me in the cafeteria or the hallway, whenever they have time because their schedules are so rigid. That’s the benefit of having someone that is accessible full-time. If there is a need, they don’t have to wait for someone outside the organization to come in. They can just grab me and tell me what’s going on. It’s very easy for me to have a conversation with them.”
However, one place that Guerin deems off limits for her player interactions is the locker room.
“That’s their space and I want to be respectful of it,” she said. “I feel like the locker room is the place where they can be themselves and they don’t have to worry about anyone watching over them. That’s where they are dressing, training, or relaxing and I try to be respectful of that. There are other ways they can connect with me outside of me going in there. Since I’m here full-time, I look at that as their home. With any client, I wouldn’t just go up to their front door and go sit in their living room.”
Despite the high profile nature of athletes, Guerin believes that the care must be consistent as if she were treating anyone else.
“Changing your approach because someone is a marquee player or a millionaire is the worst thing you can do as a clinician,” she said. “My approach is tailored to that person. I wanted to come into this position with no pre-conceived notions. I didn’t Google any of the players the same way I wouldn’t Google any client. I wanted to come in and really get to know them as the person, not the performer. I think that’s key in developing rapport and understanding who they are as a whole person, not just as an athlete. These people who have a job that happens to be football. Football players have issues and concerns about job and life transitions just like everyone else. It’s on a bigger platform, but a lot of the issues are the same as we all encounter.”
For their parts, the players have began talking with Guerin a lot more frequently since she started in September.
“They have warmed up,” she said. “They are recognizing what my goal is, what my purpose is. That’s not to say there are a plethora of players coming in with these super traumatic issues or anyone is beating down my door in need of serious assistance, but they are definitely recognizing what my purpose is and that I’m here to be an advocate for them. We’re building a rapport. That takes time to establish in an office, let alone in a hyper-masculine environment like pro sports.”
The issue of stigma in sports, especially one so hyper-masculine as football, is an ongoing issue. The Panthers organization is doing everything in its power to eliminate the stigma or perceptions of weakness that may be attached to speaking with someone like Guerin.
“Having someone the players can see every day who is a part of football operations is a huge first step in getting past the shame or stigma of mental health problems,” Guerin said. “That’s a huge first step. The other part is them just getting comfortable with who I am and knowing I’m not here to judge them and instead am here as proactive support. Stigma is something that goes away with time. It’s not something that’s going to be brushed away in a couple weeks.”
“I think it’s important to remember that we are in new territory,” she explained. “My position is something I feel is going to continue to grow. We’re changing a culture. That’s not something that’s done overnight. This is something that’s going to take time. Gaining trust, building relationships … The rookies that are here now will be veterans in four years. When players come in that year, hopefully, my role will be the norm. They won’t know any different. But it will take time for people to embrace that being the norm.”
While it is still early days in her role, based on the response she’s gotten so far, Guerin is highly encouraged.
“This a brand new position, but everyone has been very receptive,” Guerin said. “That definitely aids in me being a bit more comfortable and being able to move around. I’m meeting a lot of people within the NFL in general and that also helps. Everyone has been very supportive.”
As the NFL season climbs to a close, Guerin is working towards integrating a total mental wellness system for players, their families, and the entire Panthers organization as a whole.
“The way one player handles a loss may not be the same way another player handles a loss,” she said. “They may not want to come and process it right away. It varies from player to player, person to person. That’s where building that rapport comes into play. I’m still learning how players process wins, losses and even changes in their home lives.”
Her work may also help raise awareness about the need for mental health league wide in the NFL, as well.
“I would hope that mental health is looked at with the same enthusiasm and seriousness as medical health. And that’s in general, not just related to football,” she said. “It’s not routine to get a mental health check-up, but it is to get an annual physical or for a woman to visit her Ob-Gyn. It’s my hope that mental health will be put at the forefront the same way medical care is both in the general population and in football.”