Last month Naomi Osaka brought to light how seriously she is taking her own mental health. It would be a missed opportunity to not highlight this brave choice and utilize this moment to educate the youth sports community.
Naomi spoke up about two of the most common mental disorders among youth athletes that are often overlooked. Both anxiety and depression in children and adolescents specifically have increased over time with over 10 million youth being diagnosed with either one of them.
Anxiety is defined as a mental health disorder portrayed by feelings of worry, anxiety, or fear that are strong enough to interfere with one's daily activities. Depression is characterized as being a mental health disorder that is illustrated by persistently depressed mood or loss of interest in activities, causing significant impairment in daily life.
It would be unfair to say that our society hasn’t made progress in facing hard topics around mental health, but specifically in athletics, which is oftentimes used as a coping mechanism for anxiety and depression, we tend to push it under the rug and hope that youth athletes are handling these feelings through their sport.
Naomi speaking up about her own long bouts of depression and anxiety shows that it is possible to be an athlete and also prioritize mental health. In doing so, she has opened the door to a deeper conversation around these complex topics. As coaches, parents, and mentors, we can also heed Osaka's stance and work to change the narrative and create a safe space to explore these important subjects.
The best way to grasp how and when athletes need support regarding mental health is by asking more questions. It can be uncomfortable, but one of the best ways to approach youth athletes around this matter is to ask open-ended, leading questions. Think of it as exploring rather than just trying to get answers. Be open-minded and try to understand where they are coming from.
Here are some examples from mentalhealth.gov:
Have you had feelings like this in the past?
Can you tell me more about what is happening? How you are feeling?
Sometimes you need to talk to an adult about your feelings. I'm here
to listen. How can I help you feel better?
Do you feel like you want to talk to someone else about your problem?
I'm worried about your safety. Can you tell me if you have thoughts
about harming yourself or others?
Furthermore, it is important to also consider how you speak to your athletes as a coach, parent, or mentor. Make sure you communicate straightforwardly, speak at the appropriate level of the child of adolescents’ developmental level, watch for body language/reactions during the discussion, slow down the conversation as necessary, and bring the topic up when the child feels safe and comfortable.
As we reach the end of the tunnel concerning this global pandemic, let’s have more grace and understanding for our youth athletes. Moments such as these should highlight unprecedented strength and bravery and give insight into the rise of mental health issues among youth athletes. Let’s be prepared with tools to assist them as best as we can!