With more stars from the world of sports speaking out about the importance of mental health, we caught up with Valley Children’s pediatric psychologist Dr. Amanda Suplee to ask her more about the growing national discussion around prioritizing mental health.
We are starting to see more athletes elevating the concept that “mental health is health.” What are your thoughts about this, and how can the rest of us take these lessons and apply them to mental health outside of competitive sports?
I think it’s great. The message that mental health is health is something that mental health providers have been trying to promote for a long time. I am grateful that it is getting media attention because it is such an important message. This is especially helpful when a celebrity or professional athlete promotes this message, as it can be more powerful for children and adults who idolize them. It makes people feel supported and like they can focus on their own mental health.
Regardless of the situation, whether it is school, work, or competitive sports, there is often pressure to achieve or push our needs aside to accomplish a goal. It is very important to take a step back and recognize when something is not good for your mental health. Prioritizing your mental health is actually beneficial for your future and can help you to accomplish more. If we don’t prioritize mental health, it will catch up to us and we will hit a breaking point.
In what way can stress/pressure (in sports or life in general) be good? When can it be harmful? And how can you identify when stress is helpful or harmful?
Stress in and of itself is not a good or bad thing; it is a sign that we care a lot about something. For example, if we care about doing well on a test at school, the stress we experience would motivate us to study more.
We worry about stress when it impairs our ability to function, when it interferes in our ability to do the things we need to do or want to do. Using the test example, if we experience significant stress, we may second-guess ourselves or not study at all; therefore, we would do bad on the test. Stress should be a tool we use to understand our needs, not something that controls us.
Some signs of when stress is harmful include inability to complete tasks or responsibilities, changes to sleep or appetite, increased irritability, feelings of being stuck or overwhelmed, not being able to control the worry, or changes in behavior.
What would you say to someone who expects a child to “just stick it out” or “walk it off” instead of taking a step back for their mental health?
While it is important to want to teach a child to push through challenges or that they are capable of doing things even when they are hard, caring for their mental health is more than just not wanting to go to practice because they are tired. When a child is clearly in distress, this is a sign of a larger concern. If they had a broken ankle, you wouldn’t ask them to play on it. We need to think about mental health in this way. It is important to prioritize mental health. It is ok to take a break. Kids are likely to do better after taking a break than if they pushed through when they were not mentally in a place to do so.
What would you say to a person who perceives someone prioritizing mental health over competition as “quitting”?
There is a difference between quitting and stepping away to care for yourself. You would take time off or step away to heal a physical injury. You wouldn’t tell someone with an injury that they are quitting the team, and mental health should be the same thing. If a child wants to stop playing a sport because it’s not good for their mental health, we as caregivers need to support that. Praise them for recognizing their needs and help them to engage in something they enjoy that is better for their mental health.
After stepping back to focus on mental health, how can we encourage each other/our children to move forward again?
People in general will be more likely to want to move forward if they have had a chance to focus on their mental health. As caregivers, we can model for our kids what it’s like to struggle with something, take a step back, and then move forward. Kids learn from what is modeled to them by the adults around them. We can work with them to practice and learn coping skills to manage challenges. It is important to recognize when additional help may be needed and to seek mental health support.
Any final thoughts?
We as a society need to continue to work on the messaging that prioritizing our health, mental and physical, is not selfish. If we are suffering, it will not only affect us, but others around us. It is ok to not be ok, and to ask for help.
About the Author
Dr. Amanda Suplee joined Valley Children’s as a pediatric psychologist in 2017 with extensive experience in children’s hospitals. She specializes in working with children with chronic medical conditions and co-occurring psychological conditions.