How a community advocated for youth mental health and need for sports

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"Let Them Play"

(Editor’s note:) Maria Bonilla and Pamela Bahnam are Graduate students at the USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work. Bonilla is a local parent of school-aged children and resident of Los Alamitos and Bahnam is a resident of Ventura County.

By Maria Bonilla and Pam Bahnam

At an unprecedented time in history, with the devastating effects of a global pandemic caused by COVID-19, our youth need sports and play more than ever for their mental health and development.

With distancing and isolation initially being prescribed as the solution for limiting the spread of the virus, we are now finding that when it comes to our youth, and their involvement in sports, they are more likely to experience a negative impact on their social and emotional well-being as a result of social isolation than they are to catch the virus during sport participation.

Mental health is critical, and when needs are not addressed or treated, the outcomes can be detrimental. Imagine as a child being at an age when socializing, having a sense of a community, and physical activity is crucial for building your identity and sense of self. Now imagine having what you’ve come to know as your normal being turned upside down overnight! The life-changing events resulting from the pandemic have negatively impacted the mental health of many, and children have been no exception.

With most schooling being done virtually, many students are now finding themselves staring at a computer screen for hours on end, with little to no motivation for physical activity. Before the pandemic, many found their emotional and social interaction needs met through team sports and exercise; peers, teammates and coaches are often important role models and sources of support in kids’ lives.

Since the mandated shutdowns began, cases of depression, teen suicide, panic attacks, self-harming behavior, and anxiety have increased noticeably in school-aged children.

Many of them attribute this to the uncertainty and sudden disruption in activities such as sports. According to University of Wisconsin researcher Tim McGuine, PhD, “the greatest risk to student athletes is not covid-19. It’s suicide and drug use.”

This is a fact supported by the data published by the CDC showing that young adult’s suicidal ideation has increased from 10% in 2018 up to 25% in August 2020. The shocking finding from the organization Let Them Play CA (LTPCA) claims that 1 in 4 youth have considered suicide since March 2020.
What is the path to improved mental health and the social needs of youth being met by activities such as sports participation? A community led by a group of youth sports advocates has stepped up to the plate and demanded that our government “Let Them Play” proving that there is power in teamwork!

When the pandemic forced local schools to transition to virtual learning in March of 2020, organized youth sports and the social-emotional support associated with being part of a team went with it.

After almost a year of stagnant and inconsistent progress in addressing the lack of sports and its impact on mental health, advocates of youth sports equal rights from California took matters into their own hands. They launched the non-political, non-profit grassroots organization Let Them Play CA (LTPCA) on January 1, 2021. Their goal was getting ALL California youth athletes to be allowed to return to practice and competition.

Armed with data showing that youth sports and play is less dangerous to players than the potential mental harm stemming from isolation and lack of social support, or even acquiring the virus on the field, LTPCA acted. Community support was gathered, petitions were signed, multiple rallies were organized throughout the state, and politicians were lobbied.

On February 1, 2021 proponents of the movement (including youth athletes who bravely spoke about the negative impact seen on the mental health and academic progress of their peers) gathered outside the California State Capitol in Sacramento to hand-deliver over 10,000 emails, letters and signatures that were gathered in only five days to attempt to make their case.

After multiple lawsuits were filed locally by numerous student athletes and their parents (supported by Let Them Play), on March 4, 2021 a settlement was reached allowing most youth sports and competition to resume following similar procedures as professional and collegiate sports; the original goal of the Let Them Play movement.

Although there are strict protocols and conditions in place (and there is still progress to be made to allow complete inclusivity of sports) this was a major score for youth athletes! Through the hands-on hard work of their advocates and peers, hopeful students and athletes learned how the civil process works and most importantly how community action and advocacy make change happen!

So, what can we do for our children as a community? Speak up and advocate for making sports and play essential! Just as children need shelter, nutrition and education, they also need physical activity, social connection and equal access to opportunities in order to thrive. By signing a petition, donating to an organization that advocates for youth rights, writing to your local politicians or simply honking your horn as you drive by an athlete holding a sign at a rally, you are doing your part to support and teach our youth that their needs are seen, their voices are heard, and they are worth going up to bat for!

As counties’ covid numbers decrease and restrictions begin to lift it might appear as if life is returning to normal; for children and youth it is not so simple. Although sports and play are slowly returning to their fields and courts, it is easy to see the changes- players discouraged from giving high fives, cheerleaders wearing facemasks, and a lack of spectators in the stands. But by far the most impactful changes have occurred in the mental health and wellbeing of our youth with some being affected more negatively than others. From a social work perspective, with the return of semi-normal routines comes the process of re-adjustment and the need for the availability of mental health support and services, ensuring that the essential needs (both physically and mentally) of our youth continue to be recognized and addressed.

This hopeful stage of the Covid-19 pandemic is not about returning to life as we knew it more than one year ago, but more about adjusting to the new normal and moving forward as a stronger community.

(More information on Let Them Play and Let Them Play CA OC can be found on Facebook and at playca.org.)