Sky players aim to destigmatize mental health by sharing personal experiences through new initiative ‘The Net’

“The more we talk about these things so people don’t feel ostracized because of their mental wellness, the better,” Azurá Stevens said.

SHARE Sky players aim to destigmatize mental health by sharing personal experiences through new initiative ‘The Net’

Anyone who takes a quick trip to Twitter and finds Azurá Stevens’ handle will be connected to a page of enlightenment. The relationship she has established with her followers is not rooted solely in her uplifting messages. Stevens has connected so well with people because her 280 Twitter characters display honesty and vulnerability.

“I don’t want anybody to ever feel like they’re alone,” said Stevens, who had 11 points, six rebounds and five blocks in the Sky’s 93-83 win Friday over the Washington Mystics. “I can’t help everybody personally, but by being honest about some of the things I deal with, it can inspire somebody else.”

Stevens invests in her mental health — via therapy — just as she does with her physical well-being. Communicating with someone who is listening to understand, not simply to respond, has had a significant impact on her.

Last year, in the midst of what many would perceive as a milestone season, one that included the Sky winning their first WNBA championship, Stevens was enduring a personal battle.

She recounted a struggle with her mental health last summer that undermined her gratitude for basketball to a point that alarmed her. A self-described private person, Stevens said most people had no idea what she was going through.

Experiencing one of life’s best moments and one of its most difficult challenges simultaneously provided a significant takeaway for Stevens: Everybody is dealing with something.

“The more we talk about these things so people don’t feel ostracized because of their mental wellness, the better,” Stevens said.

At the beginning of the season, Stevens told the Sky that she wanted to be involved in the team’s mental-health initiatives in any way she could. In partnership with OKRP and on the advice of psychiatrist and wellness coach Dr. Janet Taylor, the Sky began planning a network of mental-health resources called “The Net” in April.

The Net officially will launch at the game Sunday against the Connecticut Sun and is highlighted by game initiatives and a website with mental-health support services and organizations for all to use. Stevens, Rebekah Gardner and Ruthy Hebard contribute to the initiative directly by sharing personal stories that debuted on The Net’s website and being featured in a set of trading cards that will be distributed Sunday. The cards list each player’s tools for prioritizing her mental health.

“Hopefully, there are young athletes in the crowd who will see we go through things, too, and feel more comfortable talking about their mental health,” Gardner said. “As humans, we need to recharge ourselves.”

To destigmatize mental health, a single initiative will not suffice.

Part of the WNBA’s efforts includes leaguewide recommendations, one of them being all 12 teams having a mental-health clinician on staff who’s available to all staff members throughout the season. The recommendations were implemented in 2018 and are evaluated continuously by mental-health experts. This is the first year that these mental-wellness recommendations were required across the league.

One issue the Sky and the league are grappling with is how to provide universal mental-health support year-round when the WNBA season only lasts between four and five months.

“We can talk about it and work to decrease stigma, but there needs to be follow-up that requires environments and systems to be conducive to a positive mental-health environment,” Sky mental-performance consultant Patrice Whitfield said.

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