Why NFL’s First In-House Mental Health Professional Is So Important

Tish Guerin, on staff for the Carolina Panthers, is leading the way as the first mental health professional to round out a National Football League team’s usual staff of general physicians, nutritionists, trainers, and other specialists. Guerin (MSW, LCSW, LISW-CP, DCC) is from Charlotte, NC with psychology and sociology undergraduate degrees from Winston-Salem State and a master’s in social work from the University of South Carolina. She began in this position in September 2018, and former Panthers Director of Player Engagement Mark Carrier says, “It’s just invaluable what she will bring to this organization.” While other NFL teams have been known to outsource mental health specialists when needed, the shift of many major sports leagues and college athletics to in-house professionals is one necessary for the structure of athletic culture and life.

Tish Guerin, 35, is the first on-staff mental health physician for an NFL team; She comes to the Carolina Panthers after
team members and coach advocated for the value of adding a mental health professional to current medical staff.
Photo from Melissa Melvin-Rodriguez/Carolina Panthers

The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) has already begun to lead by example – in 2016, mental health professionals were incorporated into 39% percent of Division I athletic departments, with more teams adding this much needed resource to their staff in the following years. However, with Virginia Tech adding its first in-house mental health professional in 2000, we can see just how slow-moving the process to seriously consider the risks to athletes’ mental health is.

With training, nutritional advisement, coaching sessions, and even academic tutoring all in one place, leaving the building or campus to access mental health resources can be as disconnected emotionally as it is physically. Asking for help, or needing a break from a highly-regimented schedule, is something that can feel unthinkable. UCLA Volleyball Starter Victoria Garrick shared in her TEDx Talk on Althetes, “I remember times during water breaks I would run to the bathroom and just sob because for five seconds I wanted my day to just stop.”

Disconnected care, whether it be separate health facilities or outsourced mental health providers, can create a culture where athletes feel their mental health issues are stigmatized and neglected, especially in comparison to their physical or academic problems. That’s why teams who have mental health professionals on their staff like Towson University are helping in “changing the narrative by creating a culture where seeking care for mental health issues is as normative as receiving treatment for physical injuries.”

Creating this culture of care is especially important since the highest rate of suicide occurred in football, according a study published in 2015 on NCAA athletes. Guerin told NPR, “Football, in general - just because of the schedules, the demands, the constant changes in terms of you never know if you're going to be traded or if you're just entering the league or if you're getting ready to work through, you know, retirement. There are just a lot of variables that go into the sport in general. And long term, that can definitely take a toll.” And from collegiate football, the stress of a major league like the NFL can be a steep hill.

Dealing with life’s peaks and pitfalls as well as football’s high-stress, ever-changing variables is complicated by a hypermasculine culture of silence. Carolina Panthers receiver Torrey Smith said, “We are often told as young men… it’s weak to show emotion, and to just get over it... As men, it’s something where we don’t like to talk to people about our issues because we come off as insecure. Weak.”

There are more players like Torrey Smith coming out to discuss mental health every day, from college players to major division sports. Mental health professionals like Guerin are choosing to seek out athletic teams to join, and coaches are advocating for their teams to include mental health professionals like her. By battling this stigma they are making huge strides toward changing athletic culture, and how we approach our overall health in general, for the better.