Deja Young poses for a portrait during the Team USA Tokyo 2020 Olympic shoot on Nov. 22, 2019 in West Hollywood, Calif.
For Deja Young, the practice of wellness includes taking care of both the body and the mind, from eating right and getting massages to taking little breaks, such as a nap, and treating herself.
That definition, said the two-time Paralympic gold medalist in track and field, has also changed over time.
“I would not check in on myself mentally as much as I do now,” said Young, 24, from Mesquite, Texas. “When I would feel overwhelmed I’d just push through because I thought that’s what I had to do. Now I think, ‘Why am I pushing through this? Who are you doing this for?’ Now I’m always checking in and asking myself, ‘Hey, are you feeling ok? Feeling overwhelmed?’ That’s changed significantly.”
Learning to care for herself mentally has been a journey for Young, a sprinter who was born with a brachial plexus injury that affects mobility in her right shoulder.
When she was younger, she chalked her feelings up to just being an angsty teenager or simply having periods of time when she wasn’t happy.
“I just thought it was normal,” she said. “Looking back as an adult I realize that I always struggled and felt this overwhelming anxiety or sadness. I just didn’t understand what was going on. And then in college, it peaked. The cup spilled over and I had to really face it and realize what the problem was.”
Feeling pressure to succeed athletically and falling behind in her coursework, Young attempted suicide in 2016, just two months before the Paralympics.
The greatest step she took to address her mental health following that, she said, was learning how to talk about what she was feeling.
“I internalize things and even my coaches would say that sometimes I get quiet and don’t talk,” she said. “I get super quiet and just go inside myself and curl up. Speaking was the best thing I could do. I’m an open book now. I’ll talk about it and be open about it.”
Young went on to Rio and won gold in both the 100- and 200-meter, but she was tested again in 2017 after getting into a car accident while driving back to school at Wichita State. She was injured and started to feel overwhelmed once more.
“Expressing how I felt was the biggest help,” said Young, who’s also a six-time world championship medalist and the two-time defending champion in the 200. “That’s a hard thing for a lot of people, learning how to express yourself and put your feelings into words. Once you figure out how to say it, it’s like OK, now I know how I feel and maybe someone else can relate and also help.”
As an athlete, Young said, talking about things such as anxiety and pressure and sadness can be particularly difficult. She’s happy to see more athletes speaking up about mental health because it helps break the stigma and the myth that you’re supposed to be tough and strong and have no time for feelings.
Seeing coaches step up and speak about the importance of mental health is also important.
“We’re with our coaches all the time,” she said. “Sometimes they’re seeing us more than our friends and family see us, so when they step up and speak openly about mental health, I love seeing that barrier breaking. I feel like maybe five or six years ago it wasn’t that way. Six years ago when I went through what I did no one was talking about it. At that time it was like politics and religion; you don’t want people to be uncomfortable so you don’t talk about it. Now my coaches will do mental health checks and teammates will do mental health checks.”
Therapy, Young said, can do wonders for mental health. She recommends it for everyone, whether they’re struggling or not. Even if it’s only once a month, it helps to talk about what’s been going on and get some guidance because it can help release any burdens a person might be feeling.
She’s also a big believer in taking an hour out of every day to do something that brings her joy. Her worth, she’s realized, isn’t based off her productivity.
“Right now I’m really into true crime podcasts,” she said. “I’ll listen to two or three in a row. Even though it makes me really paranoid it’s one of my favorite things to do. Or I’ll just walk my dog and get some fresh air and enjoy being outside. The last one is taking a bubble bath. A nice candle and a lavender bubble bath is so relaxing. It’s my favorite.”
On the track, Young takes care of herself by practicing positive self-talk and reminding herself to have fun and appreciate being able to train and work out. That’s been especially helpful this past year with the Paralympics postponed and when workouts have often been solitary undertakings.
Not every method of self-care will work for everyone, Young said. The techniques she uses may not be what others find they need.
“But I want everyone to know that when it comes to wellness there are people out there who understand,” she said. “Taking time for yourself is so incredibly important. So much has been taken for granted and we’ve had so many lives lost. It’s important to value your life and just enjoy every second you can.”