Q&A: NFL Life Line Program & Mental Health

A Q&A about mental health and the NFL Life Line program for current and former NFL players with Ciara Dockery, Ph.D., director of the NFL Life Line program.

What is the NFL Life Line? What resources can players get from it?

The NFL Life Line is a FREE, CONFIDENTIAL, INDEPENDENT resource for all members of the NFL community. We provide 24/7 crisis counseling and emotional wellness services, as well as information through our hotline (1-800-506-0078) or via online chat on our website: www.nfllifeline.org. You can speak with a trained mental health clinician, any time of day, about anything, and it is completely CONFIDENTIAL — you don’t have to give your name or any identifying information.

We maintain an up-to-date database of all resources and information available to members of the NFL community — both those provided by the NFL and NFLPA, as well as those offered by independent entities. The NFL Life Line is a great portal to access resources that are available for NFL-affiliated individuals. Our follow-up team is always happy to help navigate the resources available and to support you through the process of getting signed-up or connected to what you need.

The NFL Life Line is dedicated to serving all members of the NFL family through difficult times and to helping keep our community supported and safe.

Are families, as well as employees, able to access the services offered by the NFL Life Line?

Absolutely. The NFL Life Line program was specifically designed to serve current and former players and their family members, as well as team and league staff and their family members.

We recognize the huge support that family members provide for current and former players and that this can take a toll at times. We want to be a support to anyone in our community who is struggling. Family members also play an important role in identifying current and former NFL personnel who may be facing tough challenges but either don’t realize it or are reluctant to reach out for support.

Please call us and we can help you identify what is going on for that individual and help you strategize how best to support them while still taking care of yourself.

What sorts of challenges do current and former players face that can be addressed by the NFL Life Line?

I get this question a lot. The basic answer is that current and former players face the same challenges we all do: Life comes at you, whether you’re an NFL player or not! The difference is that players often feel they have to handle those challenges on their own. That can lead to isolation and can spiral quickly. We at the NFL Life Line are ready to provide support for whatever life may throw your way.

The one thing I might note is that players have a unique added challenge of transitioning out of the game of NFL football. This is no easy task, which can be hard on so many levels. From changes in routine, to physical activity level, to sense of community, to sense of purpose — and most of all, a sense of identity — there are so many aspects of transition that make it an incredibly tough time for so many guys and their family members. The NFL Life Line staff members are well trained in what that process is like and are available 24/7 to support current and former players in their next steps toward a happy and successful life beyond football.

Why is mental wellness so important? How do mental health challenges affect other areas of a player’s life?

In an ideal world, mental health would not be distinguished from health in general. One’s mental and emotional well-being is integral to every aspect of life. Without mental health, it is hard to engage in or perform well in a job, interpersonal relationships, recreational activities, physical health, spirituality or other areas of life. That is why taking time to slow down and check in on yourself is so important.

To be our best selves, to enjoy life to the fullest, to foster healthy relationships, to perform well and work toward our goals all require mental and emotional health. Mental health is integral to life, and yet we are so quick to dismiss the importance of attending to it. Just like physical fitness, doing things to check-in on and improve our mental wellbeing should be a regular part of living a healthy life.

What are some common misconceptions about mental health?

  • Any sign of mental health challenges means you are “crazy.”
  • If you’re “tough enough” you can “tough it out.”
  • Mental health challenges are somehow your fault.
  • Asking for help means you are “weak.”
  • We should only care about or focus on our “mental health” when it becomes a “problem”

What are some red flags, warning signs or early indicators that players or families can watch for as they relate to mental health?

When it comes to warning signs, I always say anything that is not a “normal” behavior for a particular person should be taken seriously. Some typical signs that you, or someone you love, might be dealing with a mental health issue include:

  • Feelings of hopelessness
  • Isolation or withdrawal
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Appetite changes
  • Outbursts and mood swings
  • Difficulty concentrating or memory problems
  • Feeling on edge or worrying a lot
  • Increased drinking or substance use
  • Thinking about hurting or killing yourself

It’s important to notice how these things might be impacting your relationships, or your ability to perform at work, or whether they are interfering with your every day functioning.

If you are noticing any of the signs listed above, please reach out for help, either by contacting the NFL Life Line (1-800-506-0078; www.nfllifeline.org) or talking to your health care provider.

What can a player who is facing challenges do?

REACH OUT! I know, I know, it’s easier said than done for many of us. But taking that first step to ask for help can be a game-changer. It can open a world of support and possibilities.

Let someone know you are not doing OK. This may seem daunting: Will they judge you? You probably think you shouldn’t feel this way, but there are so many people out there who are going through, or have been through the same thing. I promise. You are not alone with this. We hear it all the time on the line; every guy feels like he is the only one having a hard time. And if they isolate themselves, then things start to spiral. There are so many wonderful people and resources at the ready to help support you through this tough time. And you will come through it if you take that first step of letting someone know.

The NFL Life Line is a great place to start because it is 100% confidential, and you can work with a counselor to identify whatever next steps might feel most comfortable for you. But if this isn’t the resource you want to approach, think about others: family members, a pastor, a friend or your primary care physician. There is someone out there you can talk to about this stuff. Please take that step to do so. I’ve seen it change lives, and I promise it’s worth it.

Ciara Dockery, Ph.D., is the director of the NFL Life Line program for MHA-NYC. Dr. Dockery is also an NFL family member: Her father, John Dockery, played six years in the league as a defensive back and won a Super Bowl with the New York Jets. Get more information at www.nfllifeline.org.

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