By now you have probably seen the Michael Phelps commercial discussing the benefits of counseling, specifically Talkspace. The former Olympic hero has always been candid about his work in therapy, often encouraging other athletes to seek services well before his current relationship with Talkspace. Recently, however, Talkspace has been under scrutiny for questionable practices, prompting a wider and more in depth discussion regarding the efficacy, safety, and privacy of online/text-driven therapeutic services.
The importance of mental health counseling
Michael Phelps, as well as other prominent athletes like Kevin Love, Paul Pierce, and Brandon Marshall, have gone public about their mental health struggles and encouraged others to seek treatment if they have similar challenges. These athletes, and others like them, have helped knock down stigmas about athletes seeking counseling services as “weak,” or some kind of loser, and instead created a new paradigm where mental health counseling is very normalized. The result has been more athletes willing to examine and discuss mental health options, with increasingly more moving forward and seeking treatment.
The new open-mindedness athletes show toward mental health today is a giant step in a very positive direction, one that is long overdue. In my professional experience the negative perceived stigma of athletes looking weak for seeking counseling has prevented countless athletes from receiving the services they need — fortunately, that wall is coming down with the help of Phelps and others. While these recent changes are certainly welcomed, there are now growing concerns around the means in which athletes seek services, the professionals they choose to use, and privacy regarding their personal records.
Things to look for when choosing a provider
Deciding to seek mental health services is one thing, but what steps do you take after that? Many athletes I have talked to over the years about counseling have told me they either got a name from a teammate, or simply googled and called the first name that appeared. While these approaches can prove to be successful, athletes are encouraged to spend a little time and conduct a deeper investigation using the following questions:
- Costs. It’s important to know the cost of each session, as well how much (if any) will be covered by insurance and/or a health saving account.
- Therapeutic modality. Mental health practitioners use a variety of different approaches when working with clients, ranging from psychodynamic methods that examine the interpretation of mental and emotional processes, to cognitive-behavioral therapies that focus on direct thinking and behavior. Finding the right therapist fit can make all the difference when it comes to future outcomes.
- Goals and expectations. It is important that athletes discuss their goals with the therapist, as well as listen to the therapist to learn if those goals are realistic (particularly within the expected time frame set aside for treatment). Athletes need to be aware that while mental health services are very important and useful, they are limited in that counseling alone won’t turn an otherwise average athlete into a pro.
- Use of medications. All psychotropic drugs come with potential side-, interaction-, and withdrawal-effects, and the efficacy of these drugs is also in question. Athletes seeking counseling services should discuss if psychotropic drugs will be encouraged and/or prescribed during treatment.
Once an athlete decides to explore counseling, there are additional things to consider when shopping for a therapist:
- Qualifications. What education does the therapist have, and what license does he/she hold? If you sign up for a service like Talkspace, will you be working with the same therapist throughout the course of treatment, or a new clinician each time? Also, has the therapist worked with athletes before, or have any professional training and education in sport psychology?
- Privacy. While there are laws that protect clients with confidentiality, there are increasing concerns about how private therapy is when things go virtual? Another concern is if records will be reviewed and used for future marketing, as was alleged against Talkspace in the NY Times article.
- Accessibility. While virtual therapy has become mainstream, not everyone is interested in working with a clinician by phone/text. Seeing a therapist in person provides for a different experience, one that may be viewed as substantially better to some athletes.
Using mental health services should not be taken lightly, and prospective clients are encouraged to do their homework before diving in blindly. There are different mental health professionals with different degrees and background experiences, as well as therapeutic approaches regarding how they treat clients. Virtual therapy is becoming more popular, but there are unique concerns relating to this approach that include qualifications, privacy, and delivery. And perhaps most important, athletes need to make sure the clinician has training in the field of sport psychology to ensure a quality experience.