With the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games now behind us, the world of sports and mental health was left with a surprising take-away – how athletes like Simone Biles deal with on-and-off the mat issues that affect his/her/their mental health. 

The public scrutiny and coverage Biles received that almost villanized her throughout the Games was horrendous, begging the question of how we could even turn a blind eye to the issues that have just been broadcast across the globe.

“Biles was brave to do the unexpected and take care of herself,” said Dallas-based therapist Melissa Griffing in an interview with Thrive Global.

Griffing, 31, is the CEO and founder of WellNest Counseling, and a national board certified counselor, licensed in professional counseling, play therapy, adolescent therapy, parent training, and perinatal therapy. 

“We should care about these conversations today, because we have become so disconnected from one another,” Griffing explained.

“No matter what age or stage of life people are at, nobody is immune to that feeling of isolation. I believe this is because we are taught from a very early age, not to share our problems or ask for help – because we look weak. I aim to change that and teach people that it is okay to lean on one another – if you’re new parents, lean on seasoned parents; if your child is struggling with anxiety, there are 50 other kids in their school who may also be dealing with it. You don’t have to go through life alone. We shouldn’t have to.”

Launched at the height of the pandemic, WellNest Counseling aims to help bridge the gap among and between generational traumas, including the COVID-19 pandemic, the brutal murder of George Floyd, and other systemic injustices we continue to hear about in mainstream media.  

“I believe that you are the expert of your family and your child,” Griffing said. Speaking directly to athletes like Biles, Griffing said it may come off as “surprising to know that there are therapists around the world who build an entire career of athlete specialization. This is a whole niche of mental health that has been overlooked, like so many other categories.”

At the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, Griffing launched WellNest Counseling to help give families the tools they need in order to feel confident, happy, and successful.

Fact-Checking Misinformation

In Griffing’s experience, she pointed out two major misnomers that she has observed in her experience with professional counseling and play therapy:

#1 – “My Child Never Talks About the Issues; They Just Play”

One of the most common things I hear parents say is “we tried therapy with my six-year-old, but my child never talked about the issues; they just played.”

When I hear this, I have to gently remind parents that children won’t talk like an adult would in therapy. 

For example, it would be wonderful if our children came to us and said:

“…my day was terrible. First, I lost emotional regulation during the math assignment, because my frustration tolerance hasn’t been developed enough. As a result, I became angry with my best friend, because he wouldn’t share the glue. Therefore, I pushed him down at the playground.”

But instead, kids aren’t capable of that. They can’t yet appreciate that type of emotional intelligence. They cope with and explore emotions through play. So while it may not look like your child is working on the issues at hand, he or she is likely working very hard – which is why I also tell parents that play therapy isn’t always “fun.” Just because it looks as if they are playing, doesn’t mean that they aren’t working through some of their biggest emotional concepts.

#2 – “Going to Therapy Makes Me Weak”

This statement is a bit old school, and thankfully is starting to lose traction. However, I do still hear about this once a month. I hope people start to think about mental health, such as going to the doctor. 

If you had a broken foot, you wouldn’t avoid treatment, because you wanted to be tougher walking around on a broken foot. Your mental health is no different. If something is “broken,” you are not at your best. Achieving your hopes and dreams will subsequently become more difficult. 

It’s okay to not be okay, so ask for help.

Differentiating Therapies

In offering play therapy, adolescent therapy, and parent training, Griffing is very careful in distinguishing how each form of therapy affects today’s generation of parents and their children.

Play Therapy (ages 2-10)

“As a play therapist, I believe that play is a child’s language,” she told us. “It is how a child integrates new knowledge into their schema. When a child plays, he/she/they are replaying events from the day or working out some type of emotion. For example, if your child has a fight with the best friend at school, he/she/they might come home and play out the fight with action figures or dolls. Or, if mom and dad are having a new baby, you might see increased baby play. This is your child trying to make sense of what is going on and cope with it. My job as a play therapist is to use their most natural language to better reach them. In doing this, I have specific toys that help bring out the issues of concern, and through play, we work on building self-esteem, healthy coping skills, decreasing depression and anxiety, while building out healthy social skills and decreasing unwanted behavior.”

Griffing pointed out that once a child reaches age 10, it becomes more difficult for them to focus on playing with that toy or action figure. “At this point, we switch to a combination of structured activities and talk therapy.”

Adolescent Therapy 

Adolescent, or activity therapy, is when a therapist presents different activities that target emotional growth. “In my experience, this type of therapy at times feels safer than talk therapy, because we can stay in the metaphor, as opposed to talking about them directly.”

Perinatal Therapy

A form of parent training comes with therapy designed to speak to perinatal therapy, which is specifically for people who are pregnant or postpartum. “It is a unique transition to become a parent, filled with uncertainty, doubt, excitement, and fear – not to mention hormonal changes. I help parents in this stage of life navigate through all their questions.”

Demonstrating Global Competence to Patients

My initial interest in speaking with Griffing came about because we both participated in the Semester At Sea study abroad program back in 2011, offered through The University of Virginia. 

With 13 countries under our belt and hundreds of thousands of miles traveled, we came back to the United States with global competence. Now, how we used that and applied that knowledge to our respective careers – well, that’s a journey in and of itself.

“When I first embarked on Semester At Sea, I was on track to become a teacher,” Griffing shared. “As a result, I did as many school visits around the world as I could, wanting to better understand how different cultures were teaching their children. What I didn’t know at the time was that ultimately, social emotional learning, or SEL, and teaching are not mutually exclusive.”

There were two school visits, which Griffing confessed stood out to her during her three-month voyage:

“I remember visiting a village that was located along the Amazon River. They had one classroom, with multiple-aged students in it. They had maybe three textbooks; it was the first non-western school I had seen, and an eye-opening experience…the second, was a school in China, which was also vastly different from what I was accustomed to growing up. They had participated in a morning exercise, then broke for class. They received breakfast and lunch, which looked delicious and unlike any of my school lunches.”

Griffing emphasized China’s closer focus on compliance within the collective, as opposed to American values of individuation. In her opinion, this “possibly contributed to high academic achievements. The students were eager to please us visitors, by showing us their academic skills.”

For Griffing, studying various country’s approaches and priorities towards social emotional learning, helped pave the way for her to launch WellNest Counseling. 

“It is because of SAS that I have first hand experience with 15 different cultures around the world, which aids me greatly when I am working with clients who come from different cultures and ethnicities than I am accustomed to.

Griffing says that today, there is a big push for cultural competence in therapy. “SAS has given me the opportunity to have a unique perspective on culture, as not many therapists have spent time in as many countries as I have. I think the biggest lesson I learned from the voyage was cultural sensitivity. I mean, how many people get the opportunity to ask questions, learn from people different from me, and reflect on changes I wanted to make in my life, based on those experiences?”

But for the ability to travel internationally, the WellNest CEO believes Semester At Sea gave her that open perspective, solidifying her belief that a person’s first lesson in how to treat others, “starts in the home.”

“…our first relationships are with our parents and siblings. When we are talking about child therapy, this makes it even more important to work with the family as a whole, as opposed to one person in the family system.”

You can learn more about Griffing’s work by visiting WellNest Counseling or looking at her credentials on Psychology Today.