Mental wellness management
By Greg Bach
NFL great Brian Dawkins has never forgotten the hard stretches of his childhood that were marred by depression and sadness – with nowhere to turn for help.
“I lost a couple of friends to the streets so going through those traumatic experiences my emotions were all over the place at times,” says the 2018 NFL Hall of Fame inductee. “If I would have had tools and resources and individuals who could speak to me and let me know that it was ok to be feeling like I was feeling that would have been a very powerful thing for me to have – but I didn’t have that. So you tuck it away. And when you tuck that pain away it shows up in other areas of your life, sometimes even as adults. So sooner or later you are going to have to deal with whatever you swept under the rug.”
Dawkins struggled with depression and suicidal thoughts early in his career – he played 16 NFL seasons with Philadelphia and Denver – and his focus these days is providing mental health and wellness resources, and sharing his own experiences, to help youth.
“It’s very important to have open, honest dialogues with people we feel comfortable talking to,” Dawkins says.
RESERVOIR OF RESOURCES
The Brian Dawkins Impact Foundation was launched in 2019 to help disadvantaged young people, families and communities, while also promoting spiritual, cerebral and physical wellness. Dawkins’ foundation seeks to support those who may lack the resources to succeed but have the desire to take a path toward a positive future.
“It’s important for me to give back the knowledge that I have gained,” says Dawkins, a nine-time Pro Bowl selection. “I’ve been blessed, and I want to pass that back to as many people as possible.”
Part of his efforts include providing a free interactive cerebral wellness digital course that hundreds of students at several middle and high schools throughout Philadelphia and his hometown of Jacksonville have completed. Pre- and post-surveys conducted with the students revealed powerful shifts in their understanding of mental health and their confidence to handle challenges that arise: among the findings more than 75 percent of the students said they better understood how to support a friend who may be experiencing mental health challenges; and 74 percent said they believe they have the power to change a challenging situation for the better.
“Change begins with belief,” Dawkins says. “In order for someone to do what they’ve never done, they must think like they’ve never thought and act and behave like they never have before.”
In the aftermath of the pandemic the need for mental health and wellness resources for youth has never been more pressing. According to the 2021 State of Mental Health in America Report, youth aged 11-17 have been more likely than any other age group to show symptoms of moderate to severe anxiety and depression. Of those, over half reported having thoughts of suicide or self-harm. This is especially alarming since more than half of youth with depression do not receive any mental health treatment.
As a high school senior in Philadelphia stated after completing the program offered through Dawkins’ foundation: “I dealt with depression after my mother died. Luckily, my family recognized it and got me the help I needed. Other people might not have a support system like I did. I feel like the Brian Dawkins lessons are a great opportunity to inform people about their emotions and make them comfortable about dealing with them.”
LEARNING TO LISTEN
While volunteer coaches have many responsibilities to tend to throughout a season, it’s important to remember that some young athletes may be in need of someone to talk to about a difficult situation that they are struggling with at home or school.
“I have kids and I can see when their eyes are not right and I can see when their head is a little lower than usual,” Dawkins says.
So when coaches recognize that a child’s demeanor is off, there is an opportunity to make a real difference in that young life.
“One of the most powerful instruments that we can give kids is a listening ear,” Dawkins says. “Making time for that, asking them what is going on in their life, and truly listening to what they have to say.”
And throughout the season coaches can share some of their experiences that help youth understand that everyone faces challenges.
It’s an effective technique that Dawkins employs when he speaks to youth.
“I reach back in my mental rolodex and bring up some of the times that I felt a little out of whack or I didn’t handle a situation properly and I share that,” he says. “It’s about being transparent and having a conversation, not a monologue. It’s a dialogue of going back and forth and when that young person knows that you care about them they will go to great lengths to be better versions of themselves.”
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