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Martial Arts & Mental Health

By Rochelle E. Brenner

As martial artists, we can stand on the front lines of supporting mental health.

Mental health illnesses infiltrate every part of our lives. Statistics show we are at crisis level across the country:

  • 7 in 10 teens are struggling with mental health

  • 75 percent of students say school work makes them feel anxious or depressed.

  • Since the pandemic, 1 in 6 adolescents had a major depressive episode, emergency rooms saw a 31 percent increase in mental-health related visits.

  • Less than half of those afflicted get the care they need.

  • Nearly 8 in 10 teens wish there was an inclusive environment or safe space for people in school to talk about mental health.

  • And 7 out of 10 wish their school taught them more about mental health and coping mechanisms.

Here is where martial arts comes in:

“We can't change our students home lives or school situations or jobs. We can help them to be more secure where they're at. The goal of Action Karate - Black Belt character for a lifetime - can certainly help them with a section of their life where they can be grounded,” said Lisa Belcastro, mental health educator and instructor at Action Karate Martha’s Vineyard. “While they are at karate, in those moments, we can help them see and live and the positives they are doing in karate. We can point out what they’re doing that’s positive. We can help with that.”

This blog was written based on a presentation Belcastro gave to Action Karate instructors around the country about ways martial arts can assist with mental health.

Here are 7 tips for martial arts instructors:

  1. Listen. Stop what you are doing and focis. If people come to you when you are busy, pause, then set a time for uninterrupted listening. Do not say you’ll do it “later” and waive them off. Set a time.

  2. Share your personal mental health journey. Acknowledge mental health struggles exist everywhere to help alleviate the stigma.

  3. Know the hotlines: 988 is the suicide hotline number and just like 911, 741-741 is NAMI's text line for anyone who needs/wants to talk with someone. it’s available 24/7.

  4. Talk about it. It’s a myth that talking about suicide encourages it. If people are talking about it, they are thinking about it. Ask if they have a plan.

  5. Refer to professionals. Besides the hotline, NAMI is a national advocacy agency that has free support groups and resources. To Write Love on Her Arms is also helpful.

  6. Be kind. You never really know what people are going through.

  7. Include mental health in your martial arts curriculum. With the support of parents, challenge students to reduce their screen time and get them in a more positive environment. Use mat talks and lessons of the week to talk about mental health.

“Mental health is total body health. Your brain is an organ just like your heart and lungs. At Action Karate, it’s important that total body health includes mental health that's stigma-free,” Belcastro said.

Many martial artists have a Disney-esque exterior – always positive, smiling. Spoiler alert: It’s fake. While an uplifting presentation is part of the profession, we have to acknowledge that the world isn’t always rosy – that we get diseases too, of the mind and body. And our optimistic vibes are not a permanent state, and could easily be covering our last crisis, depression, anxiety or despair. (Personal note: I speak to a therapist every week and highly recommend it. I use Cerebral online and it is the perfect fit for me. The best strategy I’ve found for meditation for myself is listening to the Abide app while wearing eye-massaging heat goggles made by Renpho.) No matter what instructors are going through, we make it our mission to share confidence, hope, and high expectations in every class.

“We get so caught up in our jobs, we forget how important what we do is. … This is so important,” said Action Karate co-founder Jacque Razzi. “We all need to hear this and hear it more often and train to see the signals.”

Planning ahead, May is Mental Health Awareness Month and Action Karate will support mental health agencies through the Action Scholarship Fund.

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