The Lakers won the NBA finals last night. It was a terrible game, in which both teams’ inability to buy a basket was glorified with gratuitous references to stifling team defense. The one sweet moment, oddly enough, came from Ron Artest, one of the most visibly thuggish NBA players of recent years. Artest wasn’t the star. Yet the Lakers would probably have lost without his tenacious defense and surprising offensive productivity.
In the post-game interview, Artest thanked his family. Then he thanked his psychiatrist: “She really helped me relax a lot. Thank you so much. It’s so difficult to play … There’s so much emotion going on in the playoffs, and she helped me relax. I thank her so much.”
Press accounts described this as surreal. It wasn’t. It was a moment of graciousness and candor that underscored both the necessity and the practical value of mental health services for millions of people.
Americans’ knowledge of mental health professionals, limited as it is, is readily dominated by oversimplified, easily-stereotyped images from doctors churning through prescription pads to Dr. Phil. American views of psychiatric patients are less cruel than they used to be. Stereotypical images of the dangerous mentally ill or of neurotic characters in Woody Allen films are giving way to those of real people close to us who receive needed help for depression, bipolar disorders, or ADHD.
Still, most people have little idea of what many mental health professionals really do. I have no specific information about what Ron Artest’s doctor did for him. Judging by Artest’s public behavior, it’s obvious that the guy needed help. Artest is a gigantic man, who earns his living grappling with other, often even larger giants to grab rebounds and to deny an easy path to the basket. Athletes must be quick and physical and intimidating. They must also keep their violent impulses and their tempers at bay. This isn’t easy, even if you are paid millions of dollars to perform on national TV. Artest’s difficulties have made him–post-Rodman, anyway–the NBA’s most notorious head case. Artest earned epic suspensions for fighting, egregious fouls, charging after fans, and more. Such thuggery has cost him, his teammates, his employers, and the NBA quite dearly. It nearly cost Artest his career, and might cost him something much worse.
Artest and his employers can spend millions of dollars getting him excellent help. My guess, though, is that his needs were pretty low-tech. There are an increasing number of evidence-based, realistic, and cost-effective interventions that help people improve their self-regulation skills, manage anger, anxiety, and stress, and approach difficult situations more productively and more safely than they otherwise could. Many of these interventions go under the heading of cognitive behavioral therapy.
Such treatment helps many people. Mental health parity legislation and health reform will expand financial access to appropriate treament. Artest deserves much credit for acknowledging that he has received help. I hope more people follow his good example.