Earlier this year a trio of children's health organizations, including the American Academy of Pediatrics, declared the current state of children's mental health a national emergency. Between technology, the ongoing pandemic, and cultural conflict, it's no surprise kids are feeling depressed, anxious, and overwhelmed. But there is hope in the form of swim, bike, run.
The kids are not OK
Christine Crawford, M.D., MPH and Associate Medical Director for the National Alliance for Mental Illness (NAMI), says there was already a mental health crisis in children before the pandemic, but COVID-19 exacerbated symptoms of anxiety, sadness, irritability, and increased levels of stress in young people, partly due to inactivity and lack of social connectedness. There are now more children needing mental health care than there are available providers, said Dr. Crawford, and psychiatric care for children is at a breaking point.
Crawford notes that school can be a significant source of stress for many children, whether class is conducted in-person or virtually. Due to the ongoing pandemic, staffing shortages, and continuing school closures, access to extracurricular activities and avenues for offline social connection have also decreased. "We lost the ability for kids to access outlets they were using to help manage anxiety or depression," Crawford said.
Even with schools open again, "We're not seeing a honeymoon phase in which kids are returning back to normal. In fact, it's the opposite," she said. "Many kids were out of school for so long, we are now in a period of readjustment."
It's not all bad news
There is hope, and it comes in the form of exercise. According to Crawford, there is ample scientific evidence that physical activity reduces the stress hormone cortisol, which causes physical symptoms of anxiety such as increased hate rate, nausea, and upset stomach. Not only does exercise decrease cortisol levels, physical movement releases feel good neurotransmitters that help elevate a child's mood. Research shows levels of decreased cortisol and increased positive neurotransmitters have long term, sustained physical and emotional benefits for children.
"Kids who are able to be part of some kind of physical movement program on a regular basis are going to derive all of these benefits over time," Crawford said. "If kids can get involved in physical activity early on, that will reduce the likelihood that they are going to experience the ill effects of chronic stress," including obesity, depression, anxiety, and other mental health disorders.
Crawford recommends talking with children about both the physical and emotional health benefits of regular exercise. By changing the narrative of exercise to include both physical and mental benefits, we promote better overall health and instill better lifetime habits. "When we are emotionally well, we are physically well, too," she said.
How triathlon can benefit mental health in youth
Youth triathlon coaches make a compelling case for why triathlon specifically can be part of a positive mental health program for children.
"Triathlon teaches every life skill you need as an adult," said coach Dana Debardelaben, executive director of Omni Kids Tri in Birmingham, Alabama. "Organization, perseverance, determination, adapting to what others around you are doing, having a physical outlet. It's a sneaky way to teach life skills." Debardelaben says that in the process of participating in triathlon, kids organically learn "we can't control a lot but we can deal with what we have."
Because triathlon has so many variables, it also teaches valuable lessons about resilience that last well beyond the race. Just because the swim goes badly or something breaks on the bike, that doesn't meant that the run or transitions have to go poorly. Each new stage of triathlon provides an opportunity for a young person to learn their own physical and mental toughness.
Meg Stolt, owner and head coach of OtterTriTeam, says that one of the biggest benefits of her Houston-based program is that youth participants gain a new community through triathlon. Because many youth tri clubs are not school-based, participants interact with children outside of their usual school and neighborhood friends, therefore opening up their sense of community and increasing personal connections in real life, not just online.
Let the kids steer the bike (and pull the brakes)
Mental health experts and youth coaches all say it is critical to let the child control the level and intensity of physical activity. Coaches Stolt and Debardenlaben encourage parents to listen to their children when it comes to goal setting and frequency of triathlon participation. Parents can unintentionally contribute to added anxiety by pushing their children too hard or in the wrong direction.
Stolt further offers a gentle reminder to parents: "Kids carry the weight of their parents' expectations. However we react and receive what the child achieved that day, they will remember." Cheer for your child no matter how they are performing, and help your child find something positive in each event regardless of how they performed.
"Children need to go at their own pace," reminds Lee Ann Passaro, the COO at The Hidden Opponent, a group raising awareness for student-athlete mental health. "Success is not always tied to things we as a society equate as success. Success in sports can look like so many different things."
Passaro further suggests parents talk with their children about athletic pursuits in ways that echo overall well-being and health, such as asking questions not just related to performance or goal achievement. Instead of inquiring about split times, training schedule, or technique, parents can have conversations that promote healthy mental habits, such as "What music are you listening to on your runs?" or "It was cold this morning. How did you get motivated to get on the bike?"
Mental health for life
Triathlon can be part of an overall healthy lifestyle for children, both physically and mentally. By encouraging kids to be active, keeping training fun and positive, and letting the child set the boundaries and goals of their participation, parents can help their children establish healthy habits for both their minds and bodies through triathlon.
"Athletics are such a beautiful place for children to express themselves, find themselves, and discover things about themselves," Passaro said. That can be life changing in so many positive ways."