How Special Olympics tackled emotional well-being worldwide amidst a global pandemic

Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images /

With the isolation and anxiety of a global COVID pandemic, Special Olympics has been working harder than ever to ensure the emotional well-being of its athletes.

Sport has the power to bring us all together.

That’s how the saying goes. It is quite a cliche. But it isn’t necessarily wrong.

Sport has been proven to play a major role in one’s psychological development. Studies have shown that actively following a sport is a psychologically healthy activity. Sports fans tend to have high self-esteem and more access to social and emotional support and resources because they are part of a collective community.

Going back to ancient times, sport has always united people in a common interest: winning. It doesn’t matter if you’re the one competing in the arena, you’re cheering on from the stands, or you’re at home, keeping up to date via social media, you are part of the collective community.

At least it shouldn’t matter.

More often than not, these spaces are not all that inclusive. Very little has been done to support youth and adults alike with intellectual disabilities and they have frequently not been welcome in said spaces, and not been allowed the same opportunities.

Enter Special Olympics; The world’s largest sports organization for those with intellectual disabilities. Founded in 1968, its goal has always remained to “create a better world by fostering the acceptance and inclusion of all people.”

The organization uses a variety of methods such as sport, health, education, and community building in attempts to reach out to the 200 million people worldwide with intellectual disabilities, and their families, and tackle the “inactivity, stigma, isolation, and injustice that people with intellectual disabilities face.

Special Olympics has always promoted more than just physical health, especially during the global COVID pandemic

“We have a very broad view of health,” says Dr. Alicia Bazzano who leads Special Olympics’ Global Health Department as Chief Health Officer. “It follows the World Health Organization’s definition of health, which isn’t just the absence of disease, but a complete state of physical, social and emotional well being. This is crucial in order for you to be able to function in your community to your utmost.”

Emotional well-being, a term which Special Olympics uses as an alternative to mental health due to perceived stigmas, has always been at the forefront of the organization’s priorities. One of the key programs, in order to aid in their promotion of emotional well-being, is Strong Minds, an interactive learning activity, which comes in the form of a series of workbooks, focused on developing adaptive coping skills. Special Olympics sees competition in sport as healthy, of course, but it is also aware of how stress-inducing it can be. Strong Minds works to help those struggling to maintain positive thoughts, clear anxiety and connect with others. The main priority of the program is the “positive preventative work” with their athletes, ensuring that they tackle the problem before it even is one.

“It’s about reducing their sense of stigmatization and building their skills in a positive sense, things like building resilience, grit, using positive psychology techniques, building their confidence in their social skills,” shares Dr. Bazzano.

And Strong Minds isn’t just for those with intellectual disabilities. Dr. Bazzano clarifies that the tools in these workbooks can be used for everyone, as they are a simple way for anyone to recognize and process their own emotions, and then be able to self-direct those emotions into something positive, whether it be in a sports setting or not.

Strong Minds was a program that Special Olympics had put together before COVID-19, but the pandemic certainly elevated the need for it. Around 70 percent of Special Olympics’ athletes reported that they felt more isolated and alone during lockdown, and several reported that working through the Strong Minds workbook allowed them to connect with resources in their own community.

“We very quickly recognized the need for social and emotional supports as soon as COVID came along,” says Dr. Bazzano. “We had a social and emotional [online] screenings to understand where our athletes were [in the world] and what kinds of support they could need.”

These virtual screenings included things like goal-setting, setting up cognitive behavioral therapy techniques, and improving stress reduction methods, such as meditation.

Prior to the pandemic, all these screenings were done in-person, so one of the team’s first priorities was ensuring that Special Olympics had the digital capacity to reach all their athletes worldwide. Therapists, psychologists, and doctors from countries all over the world were trained to support Special Olympics athletes and their families via Zoom.

This was much easier said than done. The unfortunate reality is that the culture of medicine has not traditionally met everyone’s needs. The inequalities that people with intellectual disabilities have are rampant in doctor’s offices and hospitals because there is so little training at the student level.

“So many mental health practitioners as well as therapists and health professionals in general, just don’t feel comfortable with intellectual disabilities. Part of what we want to do is to start educating early in medical school, nursing schools, physical therapy school, and dental school to change the culture and make it more inclusive by including a curriculum on how to work with people who have intellectual disabilities,” says Dr. Bazzano, who, as a pediatrician, experienced the shortcomings of education on intellectual disabilities first hand.

And now more than ever, Special Olympics have the chance to not only improve the accessibility to emotional well-being tools but also ensure that aspiring health care professionals are able to receive proper education on how to diagnose and treat those with intellectual disabilities.

Just last week, the organization announced that they had received the largest single private gift in their 53-year history. Tom Golisano, an American entrepreneur, businessman, philanthropist whose son has an intellectual disability, donated $30 million to the Special Olympics Healthy Communities program.

“It was very exciting, and certainly very generous and very validating for the relationship that we’ve been having with the Golisano Foundation and Tom Golisano for the past 10 years.”

With this $30 million, Special Olympics can further their vision of allowing access to sports, and all its benefits, for everyone.

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