Kevin Chapman had briefly walked away from watching Monday night’s Bills-Bengals game at his Louisville-area home when his phone started buzzing. The texts alerted him to the news that Bills Safety Damar Hamlin had gone into cardiac arrest on the field.
Rushing back to his television, Chapman, a licensed psychologist and director of the Kentucky Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders, felt himself kick into clinical mode as he watched ESPN’s live coverage. “My mind immediately went to the players who witnessed it,” says Chapman, a former Division III running back himself. “I thought, ‘Shoot, this could be a budding trauma.’ They need to look after their mental health.’
Think of what happened to Hamlin as having an emotional blast radius, rippling out in concentric circles, washing over thousands of observers on the sidelines and in the stands at Cincinnati’s Paycor Stadium; millions more viewers at home; and countless others who later saw the replay of Hamlin collapse after making a tackle. “Anytime we see something that’s life-threatening, our normal human reaction is a visceral one,” says Chapman. But the potential impact is strong among Hamlin’s teammates, a number of whom literally surrounded the 24-year-old to shield everyone else from the sight of him receiving CPR and defibrillation that restored his heart’s rhythm before he was transported to the University of Cincinnati Medical Center.
“Those are the people who are going to be at the greatest risk of having really adverse effects,” says Janis Whitlock, a developmental psychologist and senior adviser at The Jed Foundation, a nonprofit focused on emotional health among teens and young adults. “Partly because of their association with [Hamlin] as a friend, a teammate, a colleague, but also because it could have been one of them, and they know it. I would imagine that many of them, on some level, whether overtly or not, are processing these feelings.”
Spirits have undeniably lifted thanks to Hamlin’s remarkable recovery — most recently having his breathing tube removed so he could FaceTime into a team meeting — and both the Bills (vs. Patriots) and Bengals (vs. Ravens) are set to host their respective regular-season finales this Sunday , as planned. But mental health experts warn that the possible effects may last longer for people closest to the epicenter of the “blast”, such as family, friends and teammates, especially if a previous traumatic experience has already imprinted itself on their psyche. (A 2021 article by doctor Jim Lynch published in Current sports medicine reports determined that elite athletes suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder—most commonly associated with military members, but actually capable of affecting people of all walks of life—at a noticeably higher rate than the general population, about 13% vs. 9 %).
“When I think about this event, PTSD is a concern,” says Chapman. “Players can have flashbacks, nightmares, intrusive memories, things that perpetuate the idea that they might be in danger, when in fact they aren’t.”
Adds David R. McDuff, a clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of Maryland School of Medicine and the Baltimore Orioles’ team psychiatrist for the past 26 seasons, “Sometimes it can just be that the emotional response is the same. Let’s say an N.F.L. -player had a parent who died of a heart attack. That can trigger an automatic reconnection with the previous event, activating its intensity.”
Here, McDuff, who has held similar sports psychiatry roles for the Ravens (from 1996 to 2013) and Colts (’15– to ’18), speaks from specific professional experience. In February ’03, Orioles pitcher Steve Bechler collapsed on the field during spring training and later died of heatstroke due to multi-organ failure caused by use of the stimulant ephedra (which was later federally banned as a result). Flying down to the team’s Fort Lauderdale hotel, McDuff spent the next four days welcoming a stream of players, coaches and other staff into his room, sometimes after midnight, and helping them process what they had seen .
“There was a lot of insomnia among players who were close to him,” McDuff recalls. “[But] it rippled out to the whole team. It only increased or increased the likelihood that someone would have an emergency response to a traumatic event, which emphasizes how fragile life can be sometimes.”
Over the next two seasons, McDuff says, he witnessed a significant increase in the number of players and staff seeking his services, from about 35% to upwards of 55%, the highest he’s ever seen in nearly three decades of professional sports experience. “To me, that was pretty strong evidence that if you have support services, mental health and wellness services available, they will be utilized,” says McDuff.
There’s no doubt that mental health resources abound for affected players, from the decade-old NFL Life Line — a free and confidential crisis hotline overseen in part by The Jed Foundation — to team-wide check-in calls NFLPA executives held with the Bills and Bengals this week. But experts stress that long-term, proactive screening for symptoms is as important as anything going forward. “In situations like [Bechler’s and Hamlin’s], you have the usual levels of service seekers,” says McDuff. “But in addition, you open your eyes and ears.”
Adds Whitlock (who himself is not directly involved with NFL Life Line), “All of these teams have psychologists that I’m sure are connected with all of these team members, and that connection should remain strong for the next two weeks to a month or so , until a psychologist is comfortable with where each player has come. They’ll look for all the typical signs of mental illness: impaired concentration, mood swings, maybe sudden outbursts. They’ll look for physical impediments, for anything that interferes with normal functioning.”
No two people follow identical paths when dealing with trauma, just as no two people are affected in exactly the same ways. Medication, therapy — the treatments “vary depending on exactly what’s triggering,” Whitlock says. “There are multiple modalities that a therapist will use, and I’m sure one of the first things they do, if you flag someone who’s struggling, is get a handle on where the symptoms are, and then make a plan for how you’re going to to approach it.”
For now, amid the immediate aftermath of an incident like what happened to Hamlin, the most important thing is to hold space for those who may feel a certain way and let them know it’s OK to talk about what they’re enduring. , that they are not alone in that fight.
“It will be very, very important for anyone looking after those affected to keep an eye on them,” says Whitlock. “Very athletic men are often trained to be emotionally stoic. In this case, I would really encourage them to allow support, to lean on the people around them who really have their back.”