Community New Year’s Resolution #1: Mental health by Sunhee Simon

SunHee Simon is a LD curriculum director at VBI. She is currently a junior at Stanford University and coaches here and there.

As we enter into the New Year and begin the last half of the debate season, many of us are getting ready for change. Whether it is a proactive resolution one set for themselves or gradual change that comes over time, transformation will come. This year, our VBI family has decided to add to the wave of new years resolutions; not just for ourselves as individuals, but as a community of debaters, educators, and future leaders.

A few of you, especially if you spent time at camp with us, know that this past summer VBI conducted “Equity Day” at every session, where we dedicated a day to workshops about the relationship different disenfranchised groups in debate have to the activity. Often, we call for diversity to make debate more inclusive. However, community building should not be a question of diversity alone. It should be a question of equity. Jeff Chang, journalist and Executive Director of the Institute for Diversity in the Arts + Committee on Black Performing Arts at Stanford University explains:

“Diversity is not the end in itself, it is the means to attaining equity. This means rethinking the institutions to open them up to all—it is necessary but not enough to include more voices from different backgrounds. We need to move institutions away from being mere containers for culture that people are herded into, and to transform them into catalysts for creativity that people feel ownership of and responsibility for.”

It isn’t a matter of just getting people into the activity. It is a question of what resources we are explicitly giving those who have been left out of the game for so long to make this activity home for them. It is more than accommodation and all about reorienting our values to genuinely understand the multiplicity this community can and should hold.

While Equity Day helped raise awareness of the issue, we also wanted to hammer home the importance of coming up with strategies to counter the inequities we see in debate. We wanted to emphasize that both individuals and collectives have the power to change the landscape of the community.

As a result, for the month of January, we will be posting five New Year’s Resolutions based on submissions from VBI students as they reflected on Equity Day and offered suggestions to the community.

Resolved: The debate community should care about mental health more than bids and trophies.

“I feel like although this might not be directly something filed under “equity” that it is really important to address mental health and debate. Mental health is something that is so important, and a lot of the time comes with a certain stigma. In debate the competitive atmosphere and the pressure can be so toxic, and can lead to really unhealthy and scary lifestyles or decisions. Talking about mental health and debate I feel like would really help to show other debaters that you are not alone. Even taking one step further, I feel like it is really important that there are workshops on mental health that can teach other debaters how to deal with the stress and pressure, offer tips, and talking about perspective.” – Anonymous

We’re kick starting the new year with a declaration of the wellbeing of the most important people in this activity—the children who compete in it. Many times, when we are talking about making debate an accessible space, we primarily run to identity first. This is incredibly important and will be discussed in subsequent weeks. However, even if experienced in different ways, the toxicity that comes with competitive debate has the potential to harm all of us.

So, the question is how can we do this? There are no finite solutions but here are a few conversation starters and strategies we can use to fulfill this new year’s resolution.

1. Workshops & Panels

Our student perspective is absolutely right. Sometimes the easiest way to begin tackling a problem is to talk about it. We should talk about mental health. We should allow students to express their discomfort. We should be open-minded about what can be devastating to one student while trivial to another. If you aren’t sure how to create a space to talk about these issues, creating workshops on your teams, at camps, or even during certain tournaments and debate conferences can be helpful in raising awareness and teaching students and coaches alike how to better deal with factors that are mental health stressors.

2. Coach Interventions

We as coaches and educators in the activity should also be vigilant about risky behavior we might see our debaters doing. If a child is missing dinners at home to cut cards, is flunking out of classes because they simply want to live debate, is self-deprecating after every loss or has a break down during the tournament, sometimes it is necessary to remind students that they are more than their wins. When was the last time you told your student at the end of the day, you want them to have fun? When was the last time you saw a student struggling and told them it was okay to take a break? There is no uniform way to make this call but let’s try to be more in tune with the well-being of our students. Most coaches are not professionals in mental health, especially in activities like LD and PF where many coaches are still college. So you should never diagnose your students. However, many times it takes compassion and taking a step back from the wins to notice something is wrong. Additionally, getting and providing training to know the signs of negative mental health is always a great way to be proactive about educating yourself and being there for your students.

3. Support Groups

For students, it would be surprising how helpful a support group can be. For many, the pressure of debate can be countered by having a friend or group of people who understand what they are going through. Create a space where it’s okay for you all to complain about the day. Create a space where it’s okay for someone to cry without being made fun of. Create a space where you all can trust each other. This will look different for everyone. Sometimes it can be a formal group you may have on your debate team or it can be informal among friends. Find what works for you and those you care about.

4. Making Resources Accessible

Friends aren’t the only way to make things better and sometimes they are not enough. If you or anyone you know needs help, help should be made available. Perhaps making guidance counselors, many of whom are trained to help students with these problems, available at tournaments is a way to show solidarity. If resources permit or there are volunteers, making therapists available would be excellent as well. Not being afraid to introduce these resources in the opening ceremonies of tournaments and in invitations sent out to schools can help provide comfort or even go so far as saving a life. Especially as the number of bid tournaments begin to dwindle and the tournament of champions comes into view, losses hit hard. Don’t tell students to just get over it. Let them harbor those legitimate feelings and provide resources that can help them when friends and speech docs are not enough.

I hope that these will help model some ideas on how we can actively move forward as a community. While the resolution, I hope, is not debatable, the methods we can use are! Feel free to bring your ideas to the table or report what you have been doing at your own programs to make debate the activity we want it to be.