Kevin Chapman had briefly walked away from Monday night’s Bills-Bengals game at his home in the Louisville area when his phone started buzzing. The texts alert him to the news that Bills safety Damar Hamlin went into cardiac arrest on the field.
Rushing to his television, Chapman, a licensed psychologist and director of the Kentucky Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders, felt himself go into clinical mode as he watched ESPN’s live coverage. “My mind immediately went to the players who witnessed it,” said Chapman, himself a former Division III running back. “I was like, ‘Shoot, this could be a budding trauma. They’re going to have to take care of their sanity.
Think of what happened to Hamlin as having an emotional blast ray, spreading in concentric circles, sweeping through thousands of onlookers on the sidelines and in the stands at Cincinnati’s Paycor Stadium; millions more viewers at home; and countless others who later watched the replay of Hamlin collapse after making a tackle. “Whenever we see something life-threatening, our normal human reaction is visceral,” Chapman says. But the potential impact is strong among other Hamlin players, a number of whom literally surrounded the 24-year-old to shield everyone from view of his receiving CPR and defibrillation which restored his heartbeat before he was transported to the University of Cincinnati Medical Center.
“These are the people who are most at risk of having really bad effects,” says Janis Whitlock, a developmental psychologist and senior counselor at the Jed Foundation, a nonprofit focused on the emotional health of adolescents and young adults. . “Partly because of their connection to [Hamlin] as a friend, teammate, colleague, but also because it could have been any of them, and they know it. I imagine that many of them are, on some level, whether overt or not, processing these feelings.
Tempers have undeniably been lifted by Hamlin’s remarkable recovery — most recently his breathing tube was removed, allowing him to FaceTime a team meeting — and the Bills (vs. Patriots) and Bengals (vs. the Ravens) are set to host their respective regular season finals this Sunday, as scheduled. But mental health experts warn that the possible effects may last longer for those closest to the epicenter of the ‘explosion’, such as family, friends and teammates, especially if a past traumatic experience unfolds. is already imprinted in their psyche. (A 2021 article by physician Jim Lynch published in Current Sports Medicine Reports determined that elite athletes suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder – most commonly associated with the military but in fact capable of affecting people from all walks of life – at a significantly higher rate than the general population, around 13% versus 9%.)
“When I think about this event, PTSD is a concern,” Chapman says. “Players might have flashbacks, nightmares, intrusive memories, things that perpetuate the idea that they might be in danger, when in fact they’re not.”
Adds David R. McDuff, clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of Maryland School of Medicine and psychiatrist for the Baltimore Orioles team for the past 26 seasons: “Sometimes the emotional reaction may be the same. Let’s say an NFL player has a relative who died of a heart attack. This could trigger an automatic reconnection with that past event, activating the intensity of it.
Here, McDuff, who held similar positions in sports psychiatry for the Ravens (1996-2013) and Colts (15-18), talks about specific professional experience. In February 2003, Orioles pitcher Steve Bechler collapsed in the field during spring training and later died of heat stroke due to multiple organ failure caused by the use of the stimulant ephedra (which was later banned by the federal government). Flying to the team hotel in Fort Lauderdale, McDuff spent the next four days welcoming a stream of players, coaches and other staff to his room, sometimes after midnight, and assisting them. to process what they had seen.
“There was a lot of sleeplessness among the players who were close to him,” McDuff recalled. “[But] it affected the whole team. It just increased, or increased the likelihood, of someone having a distress reaction to a traumatic event, which shows how fragile life can sometimes be.
Over the next two seasons, McDuff says, he witnessed a significant increase in the number of players and staff who sought his services, from around 35% to over 55%, the highest ever. he’s ever seen in nearly three decades of professional sports. experience. “To me, that was pretty strong evidence that if you have accessible support services, mental health and wellness services, they will be used,” McDuff says.
There’s no doubt that mental health resources abound for affected players, from the decade-old NFL Life Line – a free, confidential hotline partly overseen by the Jed Foundation – to check-in calls at team-wide that NFLPA executives held with the Bills and Bengals this week. But experts stress that prolonged, proactive screening for symptoms is as essential as anything moving forward. “In situations like [Bechler’s and Hamlin’s], you have the ordinary service search levels,” says McDuff. “But in addition, you open your eyes and ears.”
Adds Whitlock (who herself is not directly involved with the NFL Life Line), “All of these teams have psychologists who I’m sure have a relationship with each of these team members, and this connection should stay strong for the next couple of weeks for about a month, until a psychologist is comfortable with where each player has arrived in. They will be looking for any typical signs of mental distress: concentration, mood swings, maybe sudden outbursts.They will look for physical obstacles, anything that interferes with normal functioning.
No two people follow identical paths in the face of trauma, just as no two people are affected in exactly the same way. Medication, therapy – treatments “vary depending on what exactly is triggered,” says Whitlock. “There are several modalities that a therapist will use, and I’m sure one of the first things they do, if you report someone who is struggling, is figure out where the symptoms are and then do a plan for how you’re going to approach it.”
For now, amid the immediate aftershock of an event like what happened to Hamlin, what matters most is making room for those who might feel a certain way about it. topic and let them know it’s okay to talk about what they’re going through. , that they are not alone in this fight.
“It will be really, really important for everyone watching over those affected to watch them closely,” says Whitlock. “Very athletic men are often trained to be emotionally stoic. In that case, I would really encourage them to allow support, to lean on the people around them who really have their backs.