NMAA launches mental health initiative in midst of pandemic

New Mexico Activities Association Executive Director Sally Marquez

The New Mexico Activities Association last week announced a new initiative to tackle mental health when it comes to dealing with student-athletes.

And now during a global pandemic, it may be needed more than ever.

Every Wednesday – and mainly on the NMAA's Twitter page – there will be a message of encouragement posted. The name for this initiative is going to be called "Wellness Wednesdays."

The initiative got its start on Aug. 31, when Lt. Gov. Howie Morales gave a message of encouragement through a video posted on the NMAA's social media platforms. The next four days through Sept. 4, messages of encouragement were shared from people all over the state.

Brian Moore, a board certified pediatrician and pediatric emergency physician – and a sports medicine physician – wrapped up the NMAA's first week of its mental health initiative.

Moore said he's passionate about tackling the mental health aspects of not being able to participate in sports.

"The mental health aspects that I'm seeing my kids be isolated right now is far, far worse than the coronavirus outbreak as it pertains to children," Moore said. "Is coronavirus real? Absolutely. Do kids get sick? Occasionally. How many kids do we have hospitalized in our local hospitals with coronavirus? The last time I checked – zero. How many children are we having hospitalized for mental health issues because of depression, suicide, anxiety? Far, far greater."

Moore said that isolation from activities has a huge effect on students, and that although there is a pandemic, some sense of normalcy needs to return for their well-being.

"I think the message right now is that, although there needs to be precaution for coronavirus, the kids need to get back to a sense of normalcy," Moore said. "They need to get back to sports. They need to get back to their activities. And this is not just because sports are great and clubs are great – they need it for their physical and mental and emotional well-being."

NMAA Executive Director Sally Marquez said that this mental health initiative was already planned prior to the coronavirus pandemic, but that the way things have been going lately it was needed more than ever.

"Unfortunately, we saw an increase in teen suicide and thought this was an issue that needed to be addressed," Marquez told Taos News. "We had plans in the works with the Department of Health earlier this year, but the COVID-19 pandemic put those plans on hold. Then this summer, with the increased isolation for the students, we felt the need grew even higher and we needed to begin a mental health awareness initiative as soon as possible."

In another video posted in the NMAA's first week of its mental health initiative, Roswell football coach Jeff Lynn said that "for mental health purposes, a kid needs to exercise."

He added: "The second thing you can do to help your mental health is to help somebody else."

Children between ages 12-17 have the highest percentages in depression, anxiety and behavior disorders, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In New Mexico, school has been shut down for in-person learning since March and some schools in the state are preparing for in-person classes after Labor Day. This means that kids, for the most part, have been isolated – with no activities to participate in other than NMAA sanctioned workouts.

Marquez said that the NMAA hasn't made plans to localize the mental health initiative to certain areas of the state.

"We are a statewide organization and want to service all our schools," Marquez said. "We don't necessarily plan to localize the initiative because we find the message is universal – kids matter.

"We also feel like words of encouragement from their peers in one part of the state can help various students in another school. If we can get the kids in touch with the resources they need to improve their social, mental and emotional well-being, hopefully it can help."

Peñasco athletic coordinator and girls basketball coach Mandy Montoya said that she appreciates what the NMAA is doing with the mental health initiative.

"I think it's a great idea," Montoya said. "Mental health is a very serious thing. It goes on in the NBA with elite athletes. … It's good the NMAA is doing something."

Montoya said that her hope is that kids aren't afraid to share their issues because mental health is something lots of people deal with.

"Kids need to understand that it is OK to not be OK," Montoya said. "Sports are such an outlet for everyone."

If you are a student-athlete experiencing depression, anxiety or suicide, reach out to a coach, a friend or call the mental health crisis line at (855) 662-7474.

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