Bears place major emphasis on mental health, wellness
Story by Larry Mayer
With World Mental Health Day on Monday, we detail the importance the Bears place on providing players with mental health resources and support.
The Bears employ an army of doctors, trainers, strength coaches and nutritionists to help keep players in peak physical condition. But that's only half of the team's total wellness approach.
The new regime, led by general manager Ryan Poles and coach Matt Eberflus, focuses just as much on providing players with mental health resources and support.
"We've had a lot of discussions, Matt and I, and we've put a big emphasis on it," Poles said. "We feel like it's really important, and I think one of the more important pieces of that is leadership. I've always felt like if leadership's not on board with making a change and putting support in place and really emphasizing it, it doesn't really go into effect that well. So that's something that we committed to, and we feel like we've done a good job putting resources in place for our players."
"Mental health awareness and mental health support for the players and for everybody is important because people have to know it’s OK not to be OK." Bears coach Matt Eberflus
Given the pressure that players face on the field as professional athletes and off the field as young adults, the Bears believe that mental health care is vital.
"Mental health awareness and mental health support for the players and for everybody is important because people have to know it's OK not to be OK," Eberflus said. "It's OK to get help and it's OK to talk things through. We're human and we're not always going to feel great, we're not always going to feel the best and when you feel down or you feel a little bit depressed or need somebody to talk to, it's OK to do that.
"It's something that we really value, that Ryan and I have really talked about in-depth, to be able to serve the players' mind, body and spirit. That's important to us."
NFL players deal with the same stress and anxiety as the rest of the population. But they're typically under a much more intense spotlight than most, with their mistakes magnified on national television and endlessly dissected on social media and sports radio.
"The beautiful thing about the NFL as it sits today is it's huge," Poles said. "There's a lot of pressure that comes along with it. There's pressure to perform, there's pressure to win, even fantasy football. The fans are so invested, and with that beautiful relationship comes pressure. And then on top of that with that pressure to perform you also have normal life. There's things that happen in our lives that add stress, and over the years it's been important to understand that, have resources to just get things off your chest so that you can perform at a high level. But at the end of the day really from a human being perspective, it's just being healthy."
One of the measures Poles has taken in his first year as Bears general manager was hiring Mike Wiley Jr. as director of player development and mental skills. Throughout the NFL, the director of player development position is normally held by a former player who doesn't possess any background in mental health.
Wiley appealed to the Bears because he spent more than seven years providing mental skills training and mental health counseling to high school, college and pro players and coaches. He is also a licensed clinical professional counselor.
Poles decided to make the hire after seeing the impact that individuals in similar role in the NBA and Major League Baseball had on players.
"I feel that that was a blind spot that you don't hear much about," Poles said. "We know the clinical work that goes on, and that's very important. But there's also an aspect of mental skills that I thought would benefit our team going forward: 'How do you approach the game? Do you have a process for getting back from a bad game? Do you have a process for sustaining success over a long period of time?' Those are some of the things that Mike has done in the past and I thought he'd be a valuable resource for us."
Wiley helps Bears players handle adversity, keep feedback from being taken personally, quiet outside criticism and focus solely on what they can control. The goal is for the players to be able to remain confident and clear-minded, which enabling them to let their natural skills shine on the field.
"One of my reasons for being here—and I'm sure why I was brought in—is to be an additional resource to help everyone in this high performance environment be able to maintain their performance as well as optimize it as well," Wiley said. "I think one of the misconceptions of mental health is something's wrong and we need to do something to get us back to our standard. Oftentimes, especially with professional athletes, these guys are looking to go from good to great, great to extraordinary and they need resources for that as well."
"Biweekly I meet with [a doctor]. I’ve got to talk about the things that I have on my chest that come with this job, and I’m open about that and I hope that that can affect if it’s just one or two or three players or staff members to be comfortable seeking help and just talking to someone if they’re going through anything.” Bears general manager Ryan Poles
Wiley stresses to players that things like focus, confidence and anxiety management are actual skills they can possess.
"The good thing about when something is a skill is if you can identify your area of improvement and develop a process to get better, then things can improve over time," Wiley said. "So I help guys first identify what are some of the mental challenges they may be having, whether it be performance anxiety, dealing with focus or concentration on the field, [and then] developing routines that help them prepare when they're off the field, whether it be study time, memorizing plays, learning how to think about certain situations. I provide guys with tangible processes that they can use to actually get better in those areas."
Another key member of the Bears organization who provides valuable mental health support is team clinician Carla Suber. She conducts individual and group sessions with players and also provides referrals for their family members.
Suber, who was hired by the Bears on a full-time basis in 2020, revealed that she helps players "get centered and get grounded and manage their internal engines because they're so used to going, going, going, but then sometimes it can kind of spiral. So helping them be grounded, helping them meditate, helping them be mindful and be in the present."
"They have such a long litany of things to do during the day, so let's break this down into manageable tasks," she said. "And then when things do get overwhelming, we'll work on strategies on how to manage that overwhelming sense that they may have.
"We spend a lot of time helping them just kind of be able to slow things down. Coaches try to help them slow things down on the football field so they can just kind of attack it. I try to do that for them to life."
Suber also stresses the important of sleep and its impact on mental health.
"My whole mantra for them is as much as I love football and as much as I want us to win a Super Bowl," she said, "I really just want you all to be happy, healthy, whole humans, to be able to be good husbands, good fathers, good brothers, good teammates, just good humans and just be able to live the life that you want to live."
As part of their push to provide mental health support and resources, the Bears understand the importance of trying to destigmatize mental health issues.
"Just make it as normal as possible," Poles said. "Coach Eberflus has done a really nice job making it part of his meetings and making it wide open and talking about them openly. The other piece that we talk about a lot is just modeling behavior. I felt like I've been pretty open. Biweekly I meet with [a doctor]. I've got to talk about the things that I have on my chest that come with this job, and I'm open about that and I hope that that can affect if it's just one or two or three players or staff members to be comfortable seeking help and just talking to someone if they're going through anything."
"It's just the culture," Eberflus added. "And then you just bring it to life. You set it on the table and let them know that the services are there and it's OK to get help and use those services. To me, it's about the attitude and the culture that you're bringing about as a whole football team that Ryan and I are doing and it is OK. Everybody's been touched by mental health issues; it could be a sister or brother, it could be an aunt or uncle, whatever that is. Everybody's been touched by it. You have to be supportive in that area."