NBA star kevin love has become a vocal advocate for mental health research and treatment.  Erik Drost  /  CC BY

NBA star kevin love has become a vocal advocate for mental health research and treatment. Erik Drost / CC BY

One in five Americans—nearly 44 million people—suffer from a mental health issue, according to NAMI. Depression, in particular, is a leading cause of disability globally, according to the WHO. Despite these realities, mental health research and treatment remain highly underfunded by philanthropy. According to data from CANDID, developed by the Center for High Impact Philanthropy, mental health accounted for 1.3% of overall foundation investments from 2015 to 2018, and only 5% of foundation spending on overall healthcare. 

In a recent conversation with Wall Street veteran Stephen Lieber, who steadily backs mental health causes, including through the Brain & Behavior Research Foundation, he hammered home the importance of increasing funding: “By 2020, the most significant illness in the world will be mental illnesses. The clues are all there, but they haven’t been pulled together adequately.”  

One untapped donor pool where mental health fundraisers might turn is professional athletes, figures who are not only deep-pocketed, but have the power to influence large swaths of people. Back in the early days of the Black Lives Matter movement, NBA stars like Lebron James, Dwyane Wade and Derrick Rose suited up in “I Can’t Breathe” apparel, and have been outspoken on the issue. And while this growing consciousness and related philanthropy can be seen in the realm of social justice, that’s not the only area that this new generation of civic-minded athletes is stepping into.

Consider NBA All-Star forward Kevin Love, who played alongside Lebron James, helping bring the Cleveland Cavaliers their elusive first championship. Off the court, Love, 31, has emerged as one of the NBA’s most outspoken players on mental health issues, opening up about his own personal battle with anxiety and panic attacks.

“I remember when I was two or three years into the league, I never heard of a pro athlete talking about mental health, and I didn’t want to be the only one… But I’m just starting to do the hard work of getting to know myself… The Cavs helped me find a therapist and I set up an appointment,” Love told the Players’ Tribune in 2018.

That same year, Love went on to launch the Kevin Love Fund to help others improve their physical and emotional well-being. The fund recently announced that it has committed $500,000 to UCLA’s psychology department (Love is a UCLA alum), establishing the Kevin Love Fund Centennial Chair. Presented as a matching gift, the total $1 million investment will support the teaching and research activity of UCLA’s faculty working to diagnose, prevent, treat and destigmatize anxiety and depression.

Barely into his 30s, the Santa Monica native has an estimated net worth of $50 million. And with a new foundation, a recent big gift, and deeply personal stakes to boot, it seems that Love will make this a major priority in his growing philanthropy. But what has the Kevin Love Fund focused on so far in the area of mental health?

Well, some early partners include Bring Change to Mind, created to end the stigma and discrimination around mental health by empowering young people in high school and college. The fund also backs the Just Keep Livin’ Foundation, Matthew and Camila McConaughey’s nonprofit, which empowers high school students to lead more active lives and make healthy choices.

The Kevin Love Fund has also aligned with mindfulness app Headspace, providing student athletes at UCLA with year-long subscriptions to incorporate meditation into their training regimens.

This particular effort at UCLA, getting athletes talking about their struggles and being comfortable seeking treatment, seems to speak to a larger shift underway of sports stars openness and engagement around issues they’ve dealt with in their own lives. Besides Kevin Love, Spurs star DeMar Derozan, retired Raptors and Heat star Chris Bosh and others have been similarly open about their mental health challenges. And inspired by their daughter Zaya, who is transgender, retired Heat legend Dwyane Wade and Gabrielle Union have become vocal supporters of LGBT causes.

Love was recently honored at the ESPYs as the 2020 recipient of the Arthur Ashe Courage Award for his work as a mental health advocate. And he reminds us of the importance of backing these causes, saying, “Mental health isn’t just an athlete thing. What you do for a living doesn’t have to define who you are. This is an everyone thing. No matter what our circumstances, we’re all carrying around things that hurt—and they can hurt us if we keep them buried inside. Not talking about our inner lives robs us of really getting to know ourselves and robs us of the chance to reach out to others in need.”

As athletes continue to lift the veil of the stereotypical locker room toughness, we should also be prepared for a new pool of athlete givers to emerge, reshaping themselves and wading into new philanthropic territory. 

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