Kevin Love entered the NBA in 2008, around the same time the social media revolution fully took hold in the U.S. “I was right at the tipping point where it all became massive within our culture,” he tells Fast Company.
Fourteen years and one league championship later, Love, who plays the power forward position for the Cleveland Cavaliers, has seen firsthand how social media can be both a blessing and a curse for athletes. On the one hand, social platforms have helped form communities around sports at all levels and have allowed professionals to connect with fans in a more meaningful way. Yet that around-the-clock access also means that athletes may struggle to keep some separation between their game-day performance and the never-ending critique of the chattering classes. Often they are the target of highly critical or even abusive posts or tweets.
“We have 24-hour, 7-days-a-week, 365-days-a-year services that keep pumping it out, both positive and negative,” Love says.
Managing the negativity is a challenge for any pro athlete, but it can be far worse for those dealing with mental health issues, like Love, who has for years been vocal about his struggles with depression and anxiety.
For Love, all that anguish came to a terrifying head during a 2018 game against Atlanta, when he had a full-fledged panic attack. The media reported that Love had “left with an illness.” That might have been the end of it, but Love decided to go public about what had really happened.
Since then he’s become one of a handful of elite athletes who’ve begun speaking out about mental health issues. He established the Kevin Love Fund, which funds outreach organizations focused on young people suffering from mental health issues. In a larger sense, the organization hopes to “normalize the conversation” around mental health and help remove its stigma.
Now Love has found a new ally in his battle with depression and anxiety—a tech device called Cove that he wears around the back of his neck and that applies “affective touch therapy” to the skin behind his ears. The tactile stimulus is meant to replicate something like the calming touch of another human being, and can prompt the mind to deal with negative stimuli in a more even, healthy way. (The Kevin Love Fund also has a partnership with the meditation app Headspace.)
In the demo video for the Cove device, which sells on Amazon for $379 (and includes a one-year membership), Love is shown getting out of bed in the morning and checking his phone only to see negative news stories and tweets about his on-court performance. He says it’s easy to interpret such stuff as a threat, which can send the mind into an anxious, fight-or-flight response.
As for negative social media, Love says there’s really no running from it: “It finds you,” he says. “[T]hose type of things give you an immediate stress response, and in the morning it’s like you’re already fighting it from your first cup of coffee or your first bite of breakfast.”
The only answer, then, is learning how to deal with it.
Love says the Cove device, which he uses twice a day for 20 minutes, helps ward off an immediate stress response. In the demo video Love looks down at the negative tweets on his phone, shakes his head dismissively as if to say “there they go again,” then goes on with his routine.
Cove’s creator, New York-based Feelmore Labs, says the device stimulates the brain’s insular cortex and works as a catalyst for the body to create more alpha waves. It creates a mental state not unlike one post-meditation, according to the company. (Love and Feelmore Labs say a percentage of the proceeds from the sales of Cove will benefit the Kevin Love Fund.)
Love says it was building the habit of incorporating the device into his day that made a difference. “Listen, anybody selling you a quick fix for mental health is lying to you, but it’s that consistency in using it 20 minutes a day, twice a day, and that accumulation over time that really helps you,” he contends, adding that he feels his stress response less often, and his sleep has improved greatly.
Love emphasizes that the mental health challenges he deals with are society-wide problems, not limited to pro athletes. As leaked Facebook documents and the testimony of whistleblower Frances Haugen made clear, the pressures of social media can cause or exacerbate anxiety and depression, especially in young people.
“I think it’s a part of every person’s story right now,” Love says. “[For] teenagers coming into high school, with everything being so curated on social media, if they post a photo, they’re looking within their comments, and if they didn’t get enough likes, if they didn’t get positive reinforcement, they want to delete it.” For them, Love says, it’s all about “living up to expectations.” Just like it is for pro athletes. And pretty much everybody else.
Love isn’t the only high-profile athlete to go public about mental health issues. Chicago Bulls forward DeMar DeRozan, U.S. women’s gymnastics star Simone Biles, Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott, and Ohio State football player Harry Miller have each spoken out, and acted upon, their own mental health stories.
Love says one of the most insidious things about the struggle with mental health is the loneliness it can bring. “When you’re by yourself or you’re at home or you’re on the road, not around anybody, you’re isolated,” Love says. “Those are the moments where your mind can start to play tricks on you.”
That’s how Love felt during his years of suffering between 2013 and 2018. He describes it this way in his much-read 2020 essay in The Players’ Tribune:
It got to the point that year where I was simply paralyzed with depression. And of course, I’m not about to show my weakness to anybody, right? I was tucked away in my apartment, and nobody could see me suffering. The only time I would leave my apartment was to work out, because that was the only place where I felt like I added value to the world, period. To those around me, I would put on a brave face.
For Love, beginning to talk about his mental health problems was the first step toward healing. That’s why it’s so important for public figures, including athletes, to continue opening up. Because young people who feel totally alone might see that even the successful, famous, and admired suffer from the same problems they do. This alone can reframe the problem and push down the barriers to reaching out for help.