Kisha Clark: Exercising better mental health

May 9, 2022

I often think about ways Out-of-School Time (OST) programs complement mental health. 

I believe that OST programs – especially ones centered around physical activity – benefit our children’s mental, spiritual, and emotional health. This is not to say that academic-based OST programs are not beneficial to mental health; they are just as important to supporting our kids. 

But through my own experience as a mother of a student-athlete and as an athlete myself, I’ve seen firsthand and experienced how sport-related OST programs can lead to strong mental health. Even the  research proves that sports-centered OST programs improve mental health by:

  • Supporting students’ academic achievement that ultimately reduces health disparities (including mental health issues); 
  • Improving personal and social skills, leading to more confidence; and
  • Reducing anxiety, increasing resilience, and ultimately improving a child’s well-being

These facts don’t lie, and our current reality only makes the need for these OST programs even more crucial. Nationwide, one in five children and adolescents experience a mental health problem during their school years. And among the 3.8 million teens who reported a major depressive episode in the past year, nearly 60% did not receive any treatment

Even here in DC, we have a problem we need to fix. According to the PAVE 2021 Fall Back to School Survey, only 49% of families reported knowing where to look for and receive School-Based Mental Health (SBMH) support for their kids in need. 

But what if OST programs could provide the mental health supports that families need? If we reimagine the way we look at OST programs, especially sports-specific programs, we can meet our families where they’re at, and they wouldn’t need to take extra steps to find them. 

If we want to make this a reality for our families, we need to make steps towards change. Luckily, parent leaders like me already have the answers to make it happen. We believe that every family should have access (regardless of income level or where they live) to high-quality OST programs that support their children’s individual needs, their passions, and enriches their learning.

We’re glad Mayor Bowser invested nearly $15.3 million in OST programs. I’m hopeful that these funds will be used to support sports OST programs like Girls on the Run, swim classes, and camps. I also want to see these funds provide more opportunities for students with special needs and disabilities to participate in programs like them. 

However, the work is not done. Parent leaders also asked Mayor Bowser to invest $300,000 for a cost study to determine the true costs of expanding the school-based mental health programs through a needs assessment that will shine a light on the mental health supports that are available or needed across the city. Perhaps, OST programs could be one of the supports or interventions to help students dealing with mental health challenges. But how will we know this if we DON’T invest in a cost study or needs assessment as parents and families want to see?  

My children’s participation in OST sports programs improved their mental and physical health. They were engaged in a routine activity that built their confidence, improved their social skills and physical health, and ultimately supported their mental health through some of their most challenging school years. And for that, I’m more than thankful for them to have had so many opportunities to participate. 

I know what I believe: not only do OST programs provide our kids with enriching activities, safe places, and connect them to caring adults when out of school, but they play an integral role in improving mental health outcomes.

What are your thoughts?

By Kisha Clark, Ward 6 PLE Board member