The Mental State of the MLB

Most people know that Sports Illustrated makes great bathroom reading. The photos are bright and clear, the articles short and succinct, the information easily accessible and digestible. So imagine my surprise when, while passing the time answering nature’s call, I came across an article from the June 21, 2010, issue entitled “A Light in the Darkness,” by Pablo S. Torre. It was about the history of mental illness in the MLB and the steps the league has taken in recent years to make things easier for baseball players to admit their conditions and seek appropriate help. Without getting into it, let me just say that the topic resonated with me. The article was well-written, blending the statistics that make the problem seem real with individual stories (Ian Snell and Steve Blass, for instance) that drive the point home. A number of factors contribute to the stress baseball puts on its players, including societal (the feeling that every time you go out there you carry a city on your back), physical (Ted Williams once said that “baseball is the only field of endeavor where a man can succeed three times out of ten and be considered a good performer”), and mental (baseball players spend nearly as many games away from their families and friends- 81- as basketball players play in an entire season- 82). And definitive steps ARE being taken by the MLB to assure that players are at least educated as to their options regarding mental health treatment, even though some choose not to pursue it (the main character of the article, Mariner’s pitcher Ian Snell, despite being open about his mental illness, has so far refused more conventional treatments such as antidepressants or psychotherapy, preferring religious study). Lastly, players from previous generations are coming to grips with the idea that admitting emotional and mental issues is not something that makes you less of a man. Many feel that if the cultural outlook on mental illness during their era was as it is now (not that mental illness isn’t still stigmatized, we’re just not whipping people anymore), they might have felt more comfortable in dealing with issues that ultimately cut short their career.

As good as this article was, when I read it I had trouble determining its “point.” I realize that not all features have to make a larger argument. Some are just introductions, teaching you something you didn’t know before. But to bring up an issue like mental issue, one that naturally polarizes (the previous generation’s notions of “toughness” vs. new-age notions about the value of mental stability; the mental health industry’s conviction that mental illness is essentially the same as physical illness vs. the larger world’s at times religious belief that as adults we should be able to control ourselves and power through tough times) without making a larger point seems short-sided. One point that was never made was that the mental health industry on the whole still needs to improve dramatically, which will then result in major improvements in the world of sports psychology. As of now, all diagnoses are based off of external observation and patient description of symptoms, neither of which reveal much about the emotions and cognitions that cause mental illness. The article rightly points out that right now there is no definitive test that will show what a patient suffering from mental anguish actually has. Perhaps more importantly, no test exists that will show the best manner of treatment (how much medication is required vs. treatment, and which medication and treatment type would be most effective). Within this article there should have been an outcry for that, as such testing (and I firmly believe this should be the next evolution in the mental health industry) would show a dramatic increase in treatment effectiveness and a dramatic decrease in treatment time (it can take years to settle on the right combination of meds and therapy needed to make a patient well again).

Additionally, I finished the article unsure on whether or not Torre liked what the MLB is doing. Certainly something is better than nothing, but does the author believe the MLB is doing enough? Should sports psychology sessions be mandatory (or at least highly recommended) for all players? Would such an act help spot depressive trends before they became career-threatening? Would the knowledge that everyone on your team was talking to a sports psychologist about SOMETHING (even if they were just shooting the sh-t) encourage players who are truly suffering to reveal it to others? On the other hand, could forcing a player who is doing all right at the time to reveal something upsetting to them (this is quite common in therapy) actually be detrimental to his career, at least in the short term? How much should the individual’s need for long-term mental stability be weighed against the team’s need for short-term success (the team, after all, is paying the player, usually a lot of money)? I don’t claim to have answers to any of these questions, although my opinion is that encouraging an entire team to talk to a sports psychologist on a regular basis (at least once, preferably twice a week, for the entire season and playoffs) would benefit both management (who could be warned, given the player’s consent, if a player was beginning to show signs of severe depression) and individual player. My point to these questions was more that this it seemed to ignore them in favor of just presenting the state of things. I understand that not every question needs to be answered in a feature. You certainly want to write something provocative enough to get people to think about it, to ask questions like this, and beating a topic to death will make it preachy or even boring (length comes into play here). But as much as I like Pablo Torre’s article, I can’t help but feel that more needs to be argued here. If Torre sees a problem in the MLB, he should lead the charge against it. If he believes the MLB is doing enough, he should make it clearer what evidence of effectiveness he sees (a sentence at the end about Ian Snell feeling better is not enough). Sports Illustrated is a highly circulated and respected magazine, so its writers have the great opportunity of promoting change as they see fit. I don’t believe Torre seized such an opportunity.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *