The importance of mental health and wellbeing – a young person’s perspective

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The coronavirus pandemic has placed a huge strain on the mental health and wellbeing of the young people that so many of us support.

As Mental Health Awareness Week gets underway, Richard Naylor-Jones, Karate Union of Great Britain’s (KUGB) Mental Health Officer, sat down with two of the sport’s participants Jess Steadman (19) and Alex Lockett (15), to explore the positive ways sport and recreation can help to alleviate these pressures.

All three attended the launch of the Mental Health Charter for Sport and Recreation at the Kia Oval in London six years ago. The trio discuss the impact of their involvement in the Charter and their personal experiences of how the KUGB have supported better mental health and wellbeing, particularly during the pandemic.

RNJ - What are your memories of the launch of the Mental Health Charter?

JS - When I went to the Mental Health Charter launch, I did not fully understand the significance of the event.  I thought it was cool that I had the opportunity to play cricket with the Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg but I didn't really understand why the day was so important and the impact it would have going forward. What we've learnt over the past six years from events held by the KUGB such as Time to Talk Day and World Mental Health Day, is that it isn't just “playing cricket with Nick Clegg”. Mental health is something that needs to be taken very seriously and the fact that I was part of the launch of the Charter was a big honour.

RNJ - Alex did you understand the significance of what we were doing to help raise awareness of mental health and wellbeing?

AL - Looking back, maybe not then, but ever since I think it is really good that mental health has not become just one of those serious subjects that only adults talk about. The KUGB have, right from the very start, tried to explain the importance of mental health for everyone, young and old.  It doesn't just impact adults with adult problems.

RNJ - We have seen a lot of change in the past six years about how mental health is viewed and how the KUGB have encouraged conversations on mental health in sport and physical activity.

JS - Yes, I think when you get to any level in a sport it can become so much a part of your life and it's going to impact you not only in terms of your physical health but also your mental health.  Now we understand this and it is such a big part of our vocabulary. 

It seemed very different six years ago and did not appear to be a priority for the government, whereas now the Prime Minister has appointed a MP for Mental Health and during the pandemic it has become even more important and is so much in the news.

The KUGB has been right at the front of pushing open conversations about positive mental health and this is so important in sport.  As a result, I've learnt many coping mechanisms and strategies.  It has let me be so much more open about having conversations about mental health.

AL - I agree, the KUGB has really helped to push that people talk about it. I know when I was in primary school it wasn't really something we talked about but this has changed.  Now, at secondary school, one of the most important things that you can have is a positive mental attitude and good mental health.  I feel like I'm not alone especially when I'm feeling down or something is worrying me and I know that I can speak to someone and don't have to keep that worry to myself.

JS  - Karate takes a lot of character and determination to get to Blackbelt and beyond. An example would be the day I got my black belt grading. I was nervous but I got through it. I learnt that you can do anything and that the reason you can do anything is because of the support of the people around you and also because Karate develops self-confidence and you believe in yourself

RNJ - We have seen both of you grow and develop not only in your Karate but also in life. Karate emphasises the development of character, to be respectful and at the same time we look to build confidence and we hope that this self-confidence transfers into other aspects of life.

It is one of the things that we think separates Karate maybe from some other sports because there's a big focus on the development of character, sincerity and respect.  This is something we build into our training and it's great to see people benefiting from Karate in their everyday life.

It has been great that you, along with many people within the KUGB, have kept active during lockdown by training every week on Zoom and then, when we have been able to, in the park and back into the Sports Centre. 

It is great for me, in my role in the KUGB, to hear what you and others are saying and thinking about mental health and its importance.  When I went along to the launch and then we had the conversations about Mental Health as an organisation, we started to understand more. The year afterwards was a huge learning curve, we put the spotlight on mental health within the KUGB, signed the Charter and encouraged people to talk about mental health openly to help raise awareness and reduce the stigma.  

The great thing about it all is we are still talking about mental health, if people need help they are no longer alone they know they can ask and people will support them.