Reducing mental health stigma in sports, community | Sports | union-bulletin.com – Walla Walla Union-Bulletin

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Shayna Hutchens, right, announces 9th-grader Nevaeh Torres, left, as the winner in her March Mentor Madness battle with Madyson Artz at Walla Walla High School, Tuesday, March 15, 2022. The goal of the game is to bounce two balls into the cups before your competitor.
Teacher Kyle Eggars and Kristen Wegner begin their March Mentor Madness battle at Walla Walla High School, Tuesday, March 15, 2022. The goal of the game is to bounce two balls into the cups before your competitor.
School psychologist Brandi McIntire celebrates her victory in her March Mentor Madness battle at Walla Walla High School, Tuesday, March 15, 2022. The goal of the game is to bounce two balls into the cups before your competitor.
Nicole Mueller, Walla Walla High School, March 15, 2022.
Shayna Hutchens, Walla Walla High School, March 15, 2022.

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Shayna Hutchens, right, announces 9th-grader Nevaeh Torres, left, as the winner in her March Mentor Madness battle with Madyson Artz at Walla Walla High School, Tuesday, March 15, 2022. The goal of the game is to bounce two balls into the cups before your competitor.
Teacher Kyle Eggars and Kristen Wegner begin their March Mentor Madness battle at Walla Walla High School, Tuesday, March 15, 2022. The goal of the game is to bounce two balls into the cups before your competitor.
School psychologist Brandi McIntire celebrates her victory in her March Mentor Madness battle at Walla Walla High School, Tuesday, March 15, 2022. The goal of the game is to bounce two balls into the cups before your competitor.
Nicole Mueller, Walla Walla High School, March 15, 2022.
Shayna Hutchens, Walla Walla High School, March 15, 2022.
We have all been told to prioritize our mental health for one reason or another.
With public health, political and social struggles at an all-time high, it is especially important that we take care of ourselves mentally.
Athletes are often told to take care of their mental health because it will help them stay at the top of their game.
Find a balance between performing your best mentally and physically, and you’ll be in the “zone”.
If you are, or have ever been, an athlete, you know exactly what the “zone” is and how great it feels.
Surely, with the mounting pressure of performing at a high level and also being human and vulnerable to emotions and struggles, we would support these athletes in navigating their lives outside of their sport.
Then why don’t we?
Nobody thinks twice when an athlete breaks an arm and takes time to recover before returning to their sport.
An athlete pulls a muscle and sits on the bench for the rest of the game, taking time off and going through the proper treatment to get better.
Yet, when an athlete is struggling with depression, anxiety, an eating disorder or any other mental matter, we suddenly change our narrative.
Many high-level athletes have tried to adjust this narrative, in part by being open to talking about their own mental-health struggles.
Simone Biles is one of the best gymnasts in the world — tied as the most decorated gymnast of all time with a combined 32 Olympic and World Championship medals, including four Olympic gold medals.
Biles has undoubtedly put in the work — the insane amount of time, energy and commitment to become one of the greats in her sport.
When she’s out there competing well and bringing home medals for her country, we’ll cheer and rave about her talents until we’re out of breath.
This is, until she dropped out of the team competition of the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo (held in July 2021), citing mental-health issues as her reason for taking a break.
Then, for some reason, we change our narrative.
The same media outlets that praised her for her poise and precision on the gymnastics floor turned to criticism and disapproval of her decision to prioritize mental health over winning medals.
Mikaela Shiffrin, a two-time Olympic gold medalist skier for Team USA and the youngest ever slalom champion in Olympic Alpine skiing history (just 18 years old!), is no stranger to success.
Unfortunately, Shiffrin is also no stranger to hardship.
On February 2, 2020, the skier’s father, Jeff Shiffrin, died unexpectedly after suffering a severe head injury in an accident at their family’s home.
Shiffrin debated giving up skiing from that point on. Her father had been her biggest fan and supporter.
Lucky for us, she didn’t stop skiing and continues to bless us with incredible performances on the slopes each year.
When Shiffrin opened up amidst this year’s Olympic Games about her struggles leading up to her races — huge expectations from herself, fans, coaches, close friends and family — she was not comforted with open arms by multiple media sources.
Instead of admiring her for being open about her struggles and the very real mental task it takes to be an Olympian, the media focused its live stream on her sitting down on the slope after not completing a race, with her head down, looking defeated.
Other racers were still competing, but the camera wouldn’t turn away from Shiffrin.
“What a mistake. What a disappointment,” an NBC commentator reported after Shiffrin abandoned her run mid-race earlier this year. “This will live in infamy for the rest of time.”
Athletes are often criticized for failing, which is largely why many will argue that it is so important for athletes to keep their mental game as strong as their physical one.
The pressure these athletes face to compete, to represent their countries and win, can be unbearable.
This pressure trickles down to athletes even at the youth, high school and collegiate levels — during developmental years, nonetheless — and can have detrimental effects.
Whitman College baseball head coach Brian Kitamura knows the importance of prioritizing the mental health of his players.
After all, baseball is one of the most mentally demanding games to begin with.
Whitman students have access to a variety of mental health resources, and in his seventh season as the Blues’ head coach, Kitamura encourages his players to take advantage when they need them.
“From a coaching staff standpoint, we want to be able to point our players in the right direction,” Kitamura said. “That’s one thing that we’ve been very supportive and open about, encouraging our players to access resources on campus.”
Kitamura mentioned that his team engages in breathing and mindfulness exercises on a regular basis during baseball season.
Starting out practices with deep breathing and/or visualization has been a great way to help players clear their hands and reset before getting to baseball, Kitamura said.
Players are asked to come in and rate how they rank on certain stressors — mentally, physically and even academically, so that the coaching staff can tailor team training to allow players to perform at their best.
For athletes attending a prestigious school and playing a college sport, mental health can often take a backseat to other seemingly more pertinent stressors.
Yet, mental health should always remain our number one priority.
“We want our guys to understand that mental health is not only a huge concern but an important way to assess where you’re at in life,” Kitamura shared.
Kitamura ensures that he and his staff check in with players on a weekly basis in a variety of settings, including practices, study halls and scheduled check-ins.
This is to make sure coaches can interact with players organically and intentionally, off the field, he said.
As far as professional and Olympic athletics go, Kitamura thinks there’s plenty of room to grow, but we’ve still made strides in regards to opening up the conversation of mental health in sports.
“The more openly that athletes at higher levels can talk about (mental health), the more openly college athletes are going to talk about it,” he said.
“Collegiate athletes still see professional athletes as role models, whether or not they have a chance to compete at that level in the future,” Kitamura added. “How we talk about it is trending in the right direction but there’s a lot more that can be done to generate more awareness and create more opportunities for students and student athletes to not just address mental health but to openly speak about it — as opposed to being reactionary when something goes wrong.”
Just as collegiate players idolize their professional counterparts, youth and high school athletes see role models in college level student athletes.
Kristen Duede, Mental Health Specialist for Walla Walla Public Schools (WWPS), works to ensure that young students are given access to positive role models.
Duede’s role is composed of many responsibilities, most important of which is providing support for individual students and finding them access to mental health resources.
“The ultimate goal is to get students connected with someone long-term outside in the community,” Duede shared. “We are trying to reduce the barriers on how to do that.”
On a local level, Duede and her team of mental health coaches and specialists are working to reduce the stigma around mental health by opening up the conversation and, as Duede put it, understanding that a mental health matter is not a failure of your person.
“It (mental health) is really a natural reaction to stressors and to be able to get to it early on is really helpful,” Duede said. “Understanding that there is brain science behind your mental health — and it’s just as important as your physical health.”
Walla Walla Public Schools has a variety of programs that aim to provide students with mental health resources.
Some of these include Sources of Strength which, as Duede described, is a hope-based model for suicide prevention.
The program’s goals are to focus on hope, help and strength, and encourages students to pair up with mentors in the community — teachers or otherwise — to help maintain positive mental health.
Another fun and new addition to Walla Walla High School is the Mentor Madness program.
Since starting at the beginning of March, students gather at lunch each Tuesday to compete against teachers in different games. Teachers are nominated by students to participate — students on one side of the bracket and teachers on the other.
Whether you’re a youth, college or professional athlete, or a student… or just a human being, mental health matters are not things to be ashamed of.
The more we normalize it and become more comfortable about our struggles, the stronger we’ll become.
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