May 27, 2022

By Joanne P. McCallie

Group of people brainstormingIn 1995, when I was a 30-year-old basketball coach at the University of Maine, I received a diagnosis that changed my life forever. After living with bipolar disorder, and overcoming its hurdles for the last 26 years, I have come to recognize the importance of support, community and, more recently, the opportunity for advocacy.

It is no secret that we have a lot to address when it comes to the mental health challenges and the needs of our population. These issues are evident at every level of our society. High-profile stories involving Naomi Osaka, Simone Biles and Calvin Ridley this year, each of whom took a timeout to address their own mental health battles, demonstrate how mental illness can impact anyone — across all spectrums of race, gender and economic status — and in any place, time or circumstances.

After witnessing the devastating effects of untreated mental illness, I stepped aside from the basketball arena, and I decided to become a different type of coach: one devoted to fighting the stigmas surrounding mental illness. Here are my thoughts on how to fight change the conversation about mental health.

Starting the Conversation Early

We can transform societal attitudes about mental illness early on. Indeed, mental health has the potential to be part of a wider core curriculum. As a former coach, I would love to see classes in mental wellness and training in suicide prevention become common and required coursework in the way that physical education has been for over a century.

This could include broader range of psychology courses and health courses added to departments’ offerings. I would also hope to see educators proactively teaching about mental illness as a subject matter; this approach would allow young people to have an understanding of mental health conditions beyond surface-level familiarity.

Personally, I enjoyed engaging students through several coaching philosophies and principles. Immediacy, intelligence and intensity are tools commonly used by professionally trained therapists that can help teach young people to prioritize their mental health. By encouraging students to think in the present, to manage and express their feelings and to be bold in sharing their experiences, coaches can empower their players to take ownership of their emotional well-being.

Continuing Education and Intervention in College

College campuses are currently ground zero for discussion and debate on how to approach mental health. Suicide is the second-leading cause of death among college students in the U.S.

On campus, some of the most impactful and influential people are coaches, professors and mentors. These positions can come up with innovative ways to reach our peers, players or students to encourage them to share what may be troubling them and to seek professional help when they it.

For the students who don’t have access to mental health services, non-professionals can still help young people learn coping skills — such as exercise, meditation, making lists, journaling and establishing healthy boundaries. Some of these concepts are simple, but very effective. Mentorship can come from anywhere that involves coaches, guidance counselors and any other individuals that come into contact with young people. Those struggling with mental health issues often feel isolated.

Mentoring relationships can help young people who feel alone by providing reassurance and safe spaces to explore new ideas and grow without fear of judgement.

What You Can Do

So, what can you do? It is important that we demand greater resources, not just on campuses, but also for underserved communities struggling with their own battles. We must continue to educate lawmakers about mental health programs, push for greater funding in budgets and lobby insurance companies to recognize mental health treatments more widely.

And how do we help people who are struggling with their mental health?

We must find ways to be open and honest about our experiences — and, in turn, we must be able to listen the stories of other lived experiences without judgement. Changing our individual behavior to model the changes we want to see is a necessary first step. Moreover, we must not be afraid to act, sometimes swiftly, to get help for someone in need.

Philosophy matters. Choice, not chance, will and must determine the future conversation surrounding mental illness. We must make different choices in our education system to teach a topic that all students will encounter in their lives.

Joanne P. McCallie is an author, speaker and a long-time elite-level NCAA Basketball coach. She received her BA from Northwestern University and an MBA from Auburn University, and she has coached at University of Maine, Michigan State University and Duke University. An advocate for mental health and melanoma, Joanne is a wife and mother.


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