Tackling Mental Health

Dr. Desaree Festa '04 and her team honored with 2023 Pat Tillman Award For Service for NFL crisis response

Prioritizing mental health often falls by the wayside amidst the pressing demands of life. We’re quick to believe that mental health is wonderful if you have it, but requires a lot of time, effort, and resources to attain it if you don’t. More often than not, our response to an unhealthy mental state is to neglect, dismiss, or power-through warning signs. We minimize the importance of caring for our minds. But on January 2, 2023, the events of Monday Night Football highlighted the crucial importance of addressing mental health needs and introduced a new era of mental health awareness in the NFL and our nation.

Since middle school, Dr. Desaree Festa ’04 has known that her passions for sports and helping others would play a significant role in her life. But it wasn’t until she learned about the emerging field of Sport Psychology that her passion was confirmed. 

Dr. Desaree started at Eastern in 2000 as a Psychology major with a minor in Sports and Coaching. Her pursuit was even highlighted in a 2002 article in The Waltonian, where she shared her belief that Sport Psychology would reshape the way athletics is perceived as a whole. She was right. 

After graduating, Dr. Desaree went on to earn a Master’s in Sports Psychology and a Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology from Florida State University. Her passion and education opened doors for many different roles in collegiate and professional sports and eventually brought her to the NFL’s Buffalo Bills football team as Team Sport Psychologist. 

“Healthy athletes off the field are healthy athletes on the field,” Dr. Desaree explains. “As the team’s sport psychologist, I provide mental health counseling to help players and coaches navigate difficult life situations and equip them with mental techniques and strategies that optimize their performance on the team, among other responsibilities.” 

“Every day you work in the NFL, you learn something new and grow as a result – I enjoy the challenge.” 

The Buffalo Bills vs. Cincinnati Bengals game this year on January 2nd brought a significant challenge to Dr. Desaree and her team when mid-game, the Bill’s safety #3 Damar Hamlin collapsed on the field. The game stopped, and the nation watched in stunned silence as Dr. Desaree and the Buffalo Bills staff jumped into action to respond. 

Hamlin was rushed to the hospital due to cardiac arrest, and both teams, shaken by the incident, did not resume gameplay. 

“The physical nature of football often overshadows the mental impact the game has on the players. That night, the psychological ramifications of witnessing and being involved in this traumatic event were certainly overarching,“ Dr. Desaree recollects. “In that moment, we all shared a collective, human experience as we hoped for the best for Damar.” 

Dr. Desaree explains, “As one of the only NFL teams with a full time sport psychologist or mental health clinician, I was able to implement a mental health response for the whole team that started immediately the night of the incident and continued throughout the remainder of the season. Our work in building community within our organization prior to the incident was extremely beneficial in getting through this situation.” 

While Damar returned to the field several months after intensive mental and medical care, the effect this incident created has left a lasting impact on the way the NFL, and the nation, values mental health. 

This past summer, Dr. Desaree and her team were awarded the 2023 Pat Tillman Award for Service at the ESPY (Excellence in Sports Performance Yearly) Awards, honoring the quick response and life-saving measures the team provided to Damar, and the team, on that night. Damar presented the award himself. 

“I was honored to be acknowledged alongside the rest of my team. This recognition is extremely important, since the mental impacts of such a physical game often get overlooked,” Dr. Desaree shares. “Many times, we see professional athletes as superhuman. But this award is a reminder that professional athletes are human too and that their mental health and wellness matters.” 

“It is my hope that receiving this award and having this platform will shed light on the importance of mental health wellness not only within the NFL, but in our world as a whole. I hope this experience encourages others to be proactive in creating space for their mental well being. This experience is a reminder that life situations can happen anytime, anywhere, to anyone, even on the football field.”