Today, more than ever, our children are struggling with their mental health. May is Mental Health Awareness Month, but the issue needs to be recognized all year long. We simply can’t ignore the problem any longer. Between mass shootings, the pandemic and social media our children are suffering.
COVID-19 alone has increased rates of depression, anxiety, substance abuse and suicidal ideation. In addition, since April 2020, children’s mental health related emergency department visits have risen dramatically for school-aged children and adolescents. And, according to the Child Mind Institute, “evidence is mounting that there is a link between social media and depression. In several studies, teenage and young adult users who spend the most time on Instagram, Facebook and other platforms were shown to have a substantially (from 13% to 66%) higher rate of reported depression than those who spent the least time.”
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Gov. Gordon has already made the health and well-being of Wyomingites a priority and recently launched a website, Governor’s Mental Health Summit & More, that focuses on working toward solutions to improve mental health. He is now taking further steps to help improve the mental and physical health of school-age kids in the state by partnering with our organization, the National Foundation for Governors’ Fitness Councils. We just launched the 2023 DON’T QUIT! Fitness Campaign in Wyoming where three elementary or middle schools will be gifted a $100K DON’T QUIT! Fitness Center for showing innovation in fitness, health and wellness (School nominations will be accepted until Friday, March 26. Visit https://natgovfit.org/apply-now/, then click on your state button to download the short application).
While I don’t have all the solutions to improving mental health in this great country of ours, I can tell you from personal experience that exercise has a profound impact on the mental health of our children.
I’ve advocated exercise’s benefits for our kids for more than 40 years. Exercise not only combats childhood obesity, but it also improves academic performance and MENTAL HEALTH. The American Psychological Association reviewed 114 studies and found that “young people who exercise more have lower levels of depression, stress and psychological distress, and higher levels of positive self-image, life satisfaction and psychological well-being.”
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) found that “the number of children ages 3-17 years diagnosed with anxiety grew by 29% and those with depression by 27%.” In Wyoming alone, 14% of children aged three to seventeen have been diagnosed with anxiety or depression, which puts the state slightly higher than the national average of 12%.
Building a solid foundation of fitness at a young age will help lay the groundwork for them to become strong, healthy and happier adults. I find that when kids build stronger bodies, they also build confidence and self-esteem. The research supports this too. Low intensity exercise improves brain function and makes kids feel better while high-intensity workouts 3-4 times a week can reduce clinical depression.
I’ve been working hand in hand with governors across the country, putting DON’T QUIT! Fitness Centers in elementary and middle schools. The enthusiasm for working out and getting fit is through the roof, and I expect the results to be the same for Wyoming. School administrations are beginning to understand the urgency and importance of providing fitness resources to their students and staff. Our DON’T QUIT! Fitness Centers become an integral part of the fabric of the community and help create lasting positive change.
While the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) invests in critical strategies to grow the mental health workforce and expand access to mental health services, these strategies will take time to implement. However, getting our children out exercising is a tangible benefit that can be done now. Introducing physical activity and fitness to our kids is good medicine. It will help them maintain a healthy weight, improve mental health, and ultimately enrich their quality of life.
The bottom line is that we must act now by prioritizing our children’s mental health. If your community lacks mental health resources, exercise is a strong tool that can be implemented immediately. If your child is feeling sad, angry, stressed, or anxious, lead by example go for a walk together, kick around the soccer ball, or do some jumping jacks or push-ups.
Our children are our most precious resource. When our kids are mentally healthy and strong, the future of our nation will be strong. DON’T QUIT!
Jake Steinfeld serves as Chairman of the National Foundation for Governors’ Fitness Councils; whose sole mission is to provide DON’T QUIT! Fitness Centers to elementary and middle schools throughout the United States. To learn more about the DON’T QUIT! Fitness Campaign, visit www.natgovfit.org.