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William Parham: Overcoming Stigma to Promote Mental Health and Wellness
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In the courses he teaches in the LMU School of Education’s School Counseling program, Professor William Parham emphasizes that context is everything.
Parham has devoted his career to sports psychology, multiculturalism/diversity and health psychology — in particular, promoting mental health and wellness in the African American community and among professional and collegiate athletes. He has played prominent roles working across organizations and sports for more than three decades, including his most recent appointment as the inaugural director of the National Basketball Players Association Mental Health and Wellness Program, following 10 years as a consultant to the Los Angeles Lakers.
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“Mental health and wellness are not uniquely athlete issues. Mental health and wellness are human issues played out within the contexts of athletics,” Parham notes. “But in considering how these issues manifest in athletics, it’s important to understand the contexts including gender, celebrity, culture, race, ethnicity and the larger political climate.”
A major factor intersecting the above contexts are the issues of stigma, public shaming, embarrassment and guilt around mental illness and mental wellness. While this, too, is a societal issue, the public spotlight on professional athletes tends to incentivize them not to come forward with their problems, Parham says. “For example, when viewed within the context of gender, men simply do not have the same permissions in our society to emote and share their feelings,” Parham notes.
The level of stigma tends to be higher among certain racial and ethnic groups, including African Americans. “There is a great deal of scholarship suggesting that racism and socially sanctioned structural inequities represent forces that dramatically impact an African American’s experience with mental health and wellness,” says Parham, who recently presented at the Men’s Empowerment Summit, a major conference presented by the African American owned Los Angeles radio station KJLH. “We need to advance the conversation in ways that honestly identify and reflect the factors that contribute to experiences of shame and denial.”
Parham says he brings the lessons he learns from his work in the community into his SOE classrooms, where he prepares candidates in the counseling program. “I want my students to leave the program knowing the importance of understanding the lived experiences of the people and communities where they want to render services,” he says. He also wants his students to understand and appreciate the innate healing energy in every person who comes to them for counseling. The challenge in every counseling relationship is to help persons struggling with life’s issues to discover that they have power to heal themselves, Parham says. Apropos to this goal, he invites his students to memorize up to 12 mantras, one of which asserts, “When you listen to your clients long enough, they will tell you what’s wrong with them. When you listen to them just a little longer, they will tell you what you can do to help them feel better.”
There is a great deal of scholarship suggesting that racism and socially sanctioned structural inequities represent forces that dramatically impact an African American’s experience with mental health and wellness.
The stigma of mental health within the context of athletics
In his role leading the NBPA’s new Mental Health and Wellness Program, Parham and former 13-year NBA player Keyon Dooling have established a network of mental health professionals working in every NBA city, which includes a system where players can access Parham and Dooling when needed for consultation regarding mental health issues, and a player access-only website with a focus on mental health literacy that is aimed at educating players on mental health issues and resources available to them. Click here to view Parham and Dooling’s work on NBA.com.
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