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Dr. Barbara Roberts Wants To Help Normalize Mental Health In The NFL


Dr. Barbara Roberts knows how stressful it can be to pursue a career in the NFL. Athletes go through the roller coaster of earning a spot on a 53-man roster, trying to maintain a successful career and then dealing with the challenges of being an experienced veteran. It's a winding path that Roberts wants to help guide them along.

The Washington Football Team hired Roberts as its first-ever Director of Wellness and Clinical Studies Tuesday morning, making her one of just four full-time clinicians with a Ph.D. in psychology currently working for an NFL franchise. She intends on taking a proactive approach towards mental health in her new role to give players stronger building blocks for handling crises that they can maintain throughout their careers.

"You wouldn't get here unless you had tremendous, resilient skills," Roberts told senior vice president of media and content Julie Donaldson. "We want to build on those and then also look at sources of skills that they perhaps need to have enhanced a little bit."

Roberts separates players by three stages in their careers, and each of them present their own challenges. Their first years in the NFL are unlike anything they have gone through in their lives, and those issues are completely different from those of players who are going through their prime years or trying to figure out life after retirement.

So, Roberts wants to give Washington's players life skills that will help them transition through each of those phases.

"We're looking at enhancing skills to cope with stress," Roberts said, "directing them to resources that are available to them...and then managing crises, too, as they come along."

It's a growing development, Roberts said, that mental health is starting to be more emphasized in sports. She has noticed that the players have been more receptive to receiving help in the area, and having Roberts as a full-time member of the staff should help that as well. She has worked with the team before, but it was on more of an as needed basis. Now, she will be a familiar face that the players can view as someone who is there to help them on a daily basis.

"We want to normalize it," Roberts said. "I'm not something that is...foreign and different to them. And we're normalizing mental health. We're normalizing mental wellness. What a change!"

The comfort level is part of what Roberts views as one of her goals. She wants players to know she has a "24/7 perspective," meaning that she is available at all hours. The second would be to help them manage crises with more productive methods before they arise.

"We're dealing with them from the onset," Roberts said. "It's always more difficult to deal with a crisis when it's full blown."

Head Athletic Trainer and Director of Sports Medicine Ryan Vermillion, Chief Medical Officer Dr. Anthony Casolaro and head coach Ron Rivera all view her as a perfect fit for the organization, given her deep well of experience. She is a former Clinical Associate Professor, Department of Psychiatry, Georgetown University Medical Center and remains a member of the Adjunct Faculty. She also served in the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy as a Senior Policy Analyst and Coordinator for Health Policy.

"It is exciting to work for an organization that puts an emphasis on having a proactive approach to mental health," Vermillion said.

Roberts also stressed that she will be part of a team effort that includes Rivera and Vermillion among others that will be in constant communication with each other. And the goal is a simple one: to help players be as prepared for issues in life as they are for those on the field.

"Mental health is one of the most important factors in making sure our players are prepared for the challenges of life in the NFL," Rivera said. "Dr. Roberts brings a wealth of knowledge and experience and will be a tremendous resource for our players. Her impressive track record speaks for itself and I am excited for her to join our team."

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