The Dallas Mavs Gaming team recently put down the sticks and stepped into the community to spotlight mental health awareness and bring hope to the future generation.

The organization hosted an event at the For Oak Cliff Community Center where local children and teens played video games and shot hoops while learning about the importance of self-care.

Mavs Gaming is the NBA2K team affiliated with the Dallas Mavericks.

Three members of the Dallas Mavs gave a resounding yes when asked to speak to the youth about mental health awareness.

As Black men, they said the children needed to hear from those who look like them. Mavs Gaming assistant coach Bobby Jones Jr., along with Mavs Academy manager Ronard Patton and Mavs Gaming community leader Tray Thompson, all participated on the panel.

Authenticity was a key topic.

“You all have a gift different from everybody in this room,” Coach Patton said. “Your gift will make room for you. Your gift is the thing that you find yourself passionate about…you keep coming back to it. That is something that you should explore. It’s important to be authentic and know who you are.”

Each year in May, Mental Health Awareness Month offers a prime opportunity to reinforce the importance of looking after the mental well-being of oneself, their family and community.

Dr. Willa Vo from UT Southwestern Medical Center also participated on the panel and provided her expert opinion on why self-care and mental health awareness is vital for young people. She has an array of experience from working at a military youth center to running team sports programs and working with adolescents from many backgrounds.

“I love this population,” Dr. Vo told the kids. “The benefit that we can offer you today is that we’ve been in your shoes. I think when it comes to mental health we have to really know what it means. Many of us grow up in families where if you’re crying, you’re told don’t cry. We’re taught to move on. But I think it’s really important to talk about it. You have to have an outlet. If you hold something in, it’s going to bottle up and then explode later. So today let’s talk.”

She said in one study that was done, it was discovered that 75 percent of teenagers with depression knew they had it. Only 25 percent got help.

“There’s a lot of reasons for that,” she shared. “One of the reasons can be because it can be too expensive, there’s also concerns about not wanting your parents to know, or you don’t have time because you’re busy with school or extracurricular activities. There’s also this feeling that I can handle it. However, sometimes we need help and at this age, it’s important that we share how and where to get help.”

Dr. Vo explored a variety of resources available, from talking to teachers, to opening up to friends. She also highlighted the challenges children and teens might face and she, along with the other panelists, really tried to destigmatize the shame that can sometimes be attached with mental health.

“It’s very important that we learn to talk and be open,” she said.

Everyone felt welcomed and many topics were discussed.  The panelists leaned on their own experiences to teach the kids helpful lessons.

Thompson organized the Mavs Gaming mental health awareness event, officially called the For Oak Cliff Esports Experience 2.

About 30-40 children between the ages of 10-18 participated in the program, followed by a chance to play video games with some of the best NBA2K players in the world.

The students also got to work with Mavs Academy basketball coaches, and they got plenty of one-on-one time to work on their hoop skills.

The immersive experience allowed the children to know they are loved and supported by their hometown NBA and NBA2K teams.

“We want to give you perspectives and experiences through our testimonies and life’s journeys,” Thompson told the children and teens. “There is no such thing as a bad question. Don’t suppress yourself through this experience. We are here to help. We want you to engage because this day is about you guys. We want to address mental health because this is important and something we tend to suppress because of the culture and various things. So, we are going to be having real honest conversations today.”

According to researchers, half of all mental illness begins by the age of 14, and early support and awareness can drastically impact the lives of young people. This is especially true in under-resourced communities where representation matters.

“I really became aware of protecting myself even with social media when the pandemic hit and then with the death of George Floyd and the call for social justice around the country,” Patton shared. “I realized I was scrolling on the phone for two to three hours, and my brain had no more capacity. The algorithm, meanwhile, was trying to catch my attention. So, it was just tearing and beating me down. I had to learn to take a break from it. I think social media and technology are what you make of it. The more positive things I look at feed me more.”

Coach Patton said it’s important for youth and adults to self-check and be made aware of how much technology can impact one’s daily life.

“I couldn’t have been a 12- or 13-year-old with social media,” Patton explained. “A lot of it, and even for adults, turns into comparison. And now you’re comparing your life to what you see on social media, and what you’re seeing on social media is fake. You only know what people want you to know. People want you to think their life is perfect. What you see is not real; what you live is real. Be where your feet are because that’s real life.”

Dr. Vo highlighted various ways that anxiety and depression can secretly emerge. She told the children to be mindful of sleep and reoccurring thoughts as one’s body tries to fall asleep.

Pay attention if your mind keeps going, she said.

“There are many different ways to manage these,” Dr. Vo said. “Many times for kids, it’s important to go out in the community and events like this and be around other people. You want to find people you’re comfortable with in a group and can reach out to. Another thing that can be helpful is finding something you really like, even if it’s a hobby you do by yourself. We call that self-care. It’s very important. You will really need it throughout your entire life.”

She said addressing emotional challenges now can foster healing and growth.

Coach Jones said basketball and gaming were an escape for him growing up.

“Now, self-care is as simple as walking every morning,” he shared. “I get up and walk every morning and go on a five-mile walk, and it kind of clears my mind. Throughout the day, I’ll look back and think how, regardless of what happens, at least I went on my five-mile walk and feel good.”

Jones said getting sunshine really helps him clear his thoughts.

After the program, the panelists gave great wisdom about what they’d tell their younger selves.

“If I could talk to my younger self,” Patton said, “I’d say just be you. My parents always set an example of what they wanted me to be like, and I’m forever thankful for their example. That’s why I sit here today. But it took me a long time to figure out who I desired to be. It’s at the point now where I’m happy with the decisions I make because I am being my authentic self.”

Coach Patton said that although he loves the game of basketball, photography is a natural passion of his that was buried in his heart for a very long time. He now shoots photos as a form of self-care because he loves to see people smile. Photography also gives him a chance to express his creativity. Patton realizes it’s possible to have two separate dreams that coexist.

“Tap into what you like,” Patton said. “You might like putting things together, you might like exercising, you might like going outside to walk, you might like reading. Tap into what you like, and nobody can tell you that’s dumb or wrong. That’s you.”

Jones said having an optimistic outlook is one area he wished he learned about earlier.

“I wish I learned to be more positive,” Jones said. “It can be as simple as someone making a joke about you at school or online gaming, and our first reaction is that we want to snap back so we’re not made fun of. But you can ignore it and put your energy into something more positive. You will mentally wear down when you put your energy into negative behaviors and worry about snapping back. If you can learn to ignore it and realize that person might be hurting…and focus on yourself and being more positive, I realize it really helps me. I know who I am, and I know the energy I give is what I’ll get out of it.”

Dr. Vo said she wants young people to know their feelings and perspectives matter.

“I’d tell my younger self how you feel matters. You feel what you feel, and it’s real,” Dr. Vo said. “The second part of that, though, is how you react to how you feel is important. We wouldn’t have mental health issues if we could control everything we feel. So, allow yourself to feel, but what will you do about it? Do you have to say something or act out? Or can you distract yourself with something else? You can’t control the feeling, but what you do about it does matter. It’s also okay to feel stressed; once you acknowledge the feeling, you’ll know what to do about it.”

Thompson finished the educational portion by introducing all the professional Mavs Gaming players in attendance and asked them to share their self-care practices.

“I believe in self-care,” said small forward Kwan Niblack, also known as followTHEGOD. He unashamedly shared with the kids how he even takes baths. He wanted to offer practical advice for ways they can implement self-care now. “I listen to music, light candles, and relax.”

After the event, all the children and teens hit the sticks and played games, while another group participated in a basketball clinic and then they switched spots. It was an informative and exciting day for everyone as they grew closer and bonded with the leaders who participated.

“Capacity is based on thresholds,” Thompson said, “because life can bring you daily challenges. That’s why it’s important to address even social media because we live in an age where technology is taking over our value structure. It’s a term I like to call stagnant motion. When you’re looking at your phone and scrolling and scrolling, you’re not making any motion. You’re not making motion and instead seeing a lifestyle you envision yourself in. So, we must bring awareness of this [phenomenon] to children because it can impact their overall well-being.”