On a football field in Boston, several kids gather for an unlikely purpose: supporting each other in group therapy.

At the mention of group therapy, it’s easy to imagine it taking place across a seated circle in a quiet room. But this group therapy is no ordinary mental health program — it involves sprinting, catching footballs, and learning to run defense.

In fact, at first glance, a session might look like any other practice time for young athletes because just like any football team, they run drills, develop strategy, and work on throwing a perfect spiral.


But in these sessions, their coaches aren’t just coaches — they’re therapists. And the teams are made up of kids who have experienced child abuse, incarceration, PTSD, or other challenges.

A Doc Wayne practice session. Photo by Doc Wayne.

For struggling kids like these, traditional talk therapy — which involves a stranger’s office and opening up about issues that are difficult to discuss — often feels too intimidating.

“Many kids don’t want to talk about their issues or don’t really know how to talk about their issues,” explains David Cohen, CEO of the nonprofit Doc Wayne. “They certainly, in many cases, don’t want to sit down at a desk or in a room and talk to a clinician.”

Unfortunately, this is part of the reason why so many kids don’t get the mental health support they need. Of the 1 in 5 kids under the age of 19 who experience mental illness, only an estimated 20-25% are receiving mental health treatment.

That’s why, in order to truly help children, sometimes you need to meet them where they feel comfortable — even if it’s on a football field.

Susan Wayne, who has worked for decades with low-income youth, knows this firsthand. In fact, that’s why she founded Doc Wayne in 2002.

A coach and participant. Photo by Doc Wayne.

She had seen many young people struggle well into adulthood due to lack of proper treatment for their mental illnesses. She also knew how difficult it is to engage youth who don’t thrive in traditional talk therapy.  

But it wasn’t until the death of her brother, Dr. Eli Wayne, a pediatric surgeon and sports enthusiast, that she came up with the idea of a nonprofit named in his honor that would help these kids by combining both of his passions — health and sports.

Research shows that team sports can reduce symptoms of depression and boost kids’ ability to deal with stress, and also that young athletes also tend to have higher levels of confidence and mental wellness.

And that’s how Doc Wayne’s programs, which fuse athletics and mental health care, came to be developed.

One such program is a sports-based group therapy called Chalk Talk.

Here’s how it works: Say a kid gets frustrated after missing a shot in basketball. Instead of letting them get excessively angry or bottle up that frustration with no solution, their coach is there to help them figure out how to channel anger in a healthy way, such as learning from this mistake in preparation for the next drill.

[rebelmouse-image 19346410 dam="1" original_size="3500x2333" caption="Photo by Tamarcus Brown/Unsplash." expand=1]Photo by Tamarcus Brown/Unsplash.

Rather than using clinical terms that kids can’t relate to, like “emotion regulation,” the coach uses coaching language like “step to your strengths.” While the terminology is different, the therapeutic concept behind it is exactly the same, allowing the children to engage in a way that they might not otherwise.

In other words, sports allow the kids to deal with their issues — such anger or impulsivity — without feeling like they’re being forced to.

And that’s why research on this kind of sports-based therapy shows that it is just as effective in supporting mental health as traditional psychotherapy. Participants are learning to deal with their issues using the the same strategies they’d develop through traditional therapy.

Chalk Talk also helps build trust with kids who have experienced repetitive or ongoing trauma, like much of the youth at Doc Wayne. They do this by playing team sports such as soccer, flag football, basketball, and indoor rowing, where they can learn to support each other as teammates.

Photo by Doc Wayne.

This is reinforced when the kids circle up at the end of a session to give each other shoutouts — for instance, complimenting someone’s dribbling skills.

“Everything that we do is all about the team aspect,” says Cohen. “It’s all about learning skills in life that you’ll need to carry on so you can be a contributing member to your own community.”

He continues, “They have to learn how to show up and be present and ... respectful and have empathy for others.”

Today, Doc Wayne helps about 300 children a week — and these kids are seeing a big difference in their lives.

According to research on the nonprofit, they're showing lower rates of aggression and an increased ability to integrate into their communities.

Not only that, but kids are more likely to stay in sports-based therapy because they actually enjoy it. The no-show rate among kids for traditional talk-based therapy sessions is around 40% but at Doc Wayne, it’s only around 20%, according to Cohen.

“Sometimes you’ll see kids actually loving therapy,” he adds, because at Doc Wayne, healing goes hand-in-hand with their favorite sport.

Photo by Doc Wayne.

Cohen remembers observing one boy who wasn’t interested in engaging with the group. For about 15 minutes, the boy sat on the sidelines while the other kids practiced drills with their coach. Then, for another 10 minutes, he threw a ball against a wall by himself. Finally, he quietly joined the group.

He was allowed to do so on his own terms, and Cohen says that’s what helped him discover his own willingness to engage.

For many of the kids who come to Doc Wayne for help, simply having a supportive adult to depend on is a luxury.

That’s why this organization is so helpful: It helps give these kids a reliable support system so that they can begin to trust others to help them through tough times.

“Their lives … have been disrupted in so many ways,” says Cohen. “[So] we make sure that we’re there, that we earn the trust … week in and week out.”

Courtesy of Elaine Ahn

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Wylee Mitchell is a senior at Nevada Connections Academy who started a t-shirt company to raise awareness for mental health.

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Teens of today live in a totally different world than the one their parents grew up in. Not only do young people have access to technologies that previous generations barely dreamed of, but they're also constantly bombarded with information from the news and media.

Today’s youth are also living through a pandemic that has created an extra layer of difficulty to an already challenging age—and it has taken a toll on their mental health.

According to Mental Health America, nearly 14% of youths ages 12 to 17 experienced a major depressive episode in the past year. In a September 2020 survey of high schoolers by Active Minds, nearly 75% of respondents reported an increase in stress, anxiety, sadness and isolation during the first six months of the pandemic. And in a Pearson and Connections Academy survey of US parents, 66% said their child felt anxious or depressed during the pandemic.

However, the pandemic has only exacerbated youth mental health issues that were already happening before COVID-19.

“Many people associate our current mental health crisis with the pandemic,” says Morgan Champion, the head of counseling services for Connections Academy Schools. “In fact, the youth mental health crisis was alarming and on the rise before the pandemic. Today, the alarm continues.”

Mental Health America reports that most people who take the organization’s online mental health screening test are under 18. According to the American Psychiatric Association, about 50% of cases of mental illness begin by age 14, and the tendency to develop depression and bipolar disorder nearly doubles from age 13 to age 18.

Such statistics demand attention and action, which is why experts say destigmatizing mental health and talking about it is so important.

“Today we see more people talking about mental health openly—in a way that is more akin to physical health,” says Champion. She adds that mental health support for young people is being more widely promoted, and kids and teens have greater access to resources, from their school counselors to support organizations.

Parents are encouraging this support too. More than two-thirds of American parents believe children should be introduced to wellness and mental health awareness in primary or middle school, according to a new Global Learner Survey from Pearson. Since early intervention is key to helping young people manage their mental health, these changes are positive developments.

In addition, more and more people in the public eye are sharing their personal mental health experiences as well, which can help inspire young people to open up and seek out the help they need.

“Many celebrities and influencers have come forward with their mental health stories, which can normalize the conversation, and is helpful for younger generations to understand that they are not alone,” says Champion.

That’s one reason Connections Academy is hosting a series of virtual Emotional Fitness talks with Olympic athletes who are alums of the virtual school during Mental Health Awareness Month. These talks are free, open to the public and include relatable topics such as success and failure, leadership, empowerment and authenticity. For instance, on May 18, Olympic women’s ice hockey player Lyndsey Fry will speak on finding your own style of confidence, and on May 25, Olympic figure skater Karen Chen will share advice for keeping calm under pressure.

Family support plays a huge role as well. While the pandemic has been challenging in and of itself, it has actually helped families identify mental health struggles as they’ve spent more time together.

“Parents gained greater insight into their child’s behavior and moods, how they interact with peers and teachers,” says Champion. “For many parents this was eye-opening and revealed the need to focus on mental health.”

It’s not always easy to tell if a teen is dealing with normal emotional ups and downs or if they need extra help, but there are some warning signs caregivers can watch for.

“Being attuned to your child’s mood, affect, school performance, and relationships with friends or significant others can help you gauge whether you are dealing with teenage normalcy or something bigger,” Champion says. Depending on a child’s age, parents should be looking for the following signs, which may be co-occurring:

  • Perpetual depressed mood
  • Rocky friend relationships
  • Spending a lot of time alone and refusing to participate in daily activities
  • Too much or not enough sleep
  • Not eating a regular diet
  • Intense fear or anxiety
  • Drug or alcohol use
  • Suicidal ideation (talking about being a burden or giving away possessions) or plans

“You know your child best. If you are unsure if your child is having a rough time or if there is something more serious going on, it is best to reach out to a counselor or doctor to be sure,” says Champion. “Always err on the side of caution.”

If it appears a student does need help, what next? Talking to a school counselor can be a good first step, since they are easily accessible and free to visit.

“Just getting students to talk about their struggles with a trusted adult is huge,” says Champion. “When I meet with students and/or their families, I work with them to help identify the issues they are facing. I listen and recommend next steps, such as referring families to mental health resources in their local areas.”

Just as parents would take their child to a doctor for a sprained ankle, they shouldn’t be afraid to ask for help if a child is struggling mentally or emotionally. Parents also need to realize that they may not be able to help them on their own, no matter how much love and support they have to offer.

“That is a hard concept to accept when parents can feel solely responsible for their child’s welfare and well-being,” says Champion. “The adage still stands—it takes a village to raise a child. Be sure you are surrounding yourself and your child with a great support system to help tackle life’s many challenges.”

That village can include everyone from close family to local community members to public figures. Helping young people learn to manage their mental health is a gift we can all contribute to, one that will serve them for a lifetime.

Join athletes, Connections Academy and Upworthy for candid discussions on mental health during Mental Health Awareness Month. Learn more and find resources here.

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