What Is…Holding Space?

When I started my “what is” series, there were a number of terms that I thought were deserving of a post in the series, because they are viewed as social justice jargon that many don’t understand.

One term I was not aware of when I started the series, but sounded like jargon to me when I first heard it, was something called holding space. And then, I heard that term heard multiple times in short succession.

So, what is holding space, and why is it so important?

I’ve heard several definitions, but one of the more extensive definitions I’ve seen of it is that it is “to be present with someone, without judgment. It means you donate your ears and heart without wanting anything in return. It involves practicing empathy and compassion. You accept someone’s truths, no matter what they may be, and put your needs and opinions aside, allowing someone to just be.”[1] For example, if you need to process something that’s weighing you down emotionally and a friend of yours listens while you process things, that friend is holding space. When that friend is listening to your rant about something distressing in your academics, your job, or something else (and doing so without judging you, or even doing so by sympathizing with you by sharing their own experiences), they are holding space.

Holding space sounds easy, but it is actually really difficult for many of us. Holding space means that others and their experiences, as opposed to us and ours, are at the center of attention—something that some of us struggle with (because some of us can struggle to have anything other than us and our own experiences at the center). Some of us are more inclined towards taking up space emotionally instead of holding it; as such, that can make holding space all the more difficult.

In fact, certain topics are so sensitive and difficult to process that it’s not wise to expect a friend to hold space (for example, trauma of various kinds). I cannot say enough how important it is, in such a situation, to seek a mental health professional if at all possible. While I recognize the unfortunate reality that mental health care is expensive for many and has a scarcity of access for many (issues which could be the subject of their own blog post on access to mental health care),[2] there is no substitute for a good mental health professional when you need someone to help you process certain things. A friend may be helpful and loving in certain ways, but at the same time, a friend is not your mental health professional. Furthermore, mental health professionals—psychologists, psychiatrists, and licensed social workers—are trained to do more than hold space; they are trained to help their clients process and address crises and other areas of concern.

Even if, in many cases, it may be best to seek a therapist, hopefully this post explains what it means to hold space in other situations.


[1] https://www.mindbodygreen.com/articles/holding-space

[2] https://www.cnbc.com/2021/05/10/cost-and-accessibility-of-mental-health-care-in-america.html. One thing I should add though is that there are some resources out there for those who find money tight when it comes to mental health care; you can find some such resources here: https://www.nbcnews.com/better/health/mental-health-services-how-get-treatment-if-you-can-t-ncna875176

Simone Biles, Sexual Abuse, and Mental Health

Simone Biles. Agência Brasil Fotografias, CC BY 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Content warnings: Sexual abuse, suicide

One of the major stories of the recently concluded Summer Olympics was how decorated American gymnast Simone Biles was ultimately not involved in several of the events that she qualified for as a result of her struggles with mental health. Reaction to this seemed a bit split: many praised her for prioritizing her mental health, while some critics thought of her as a quitter.

Just to clarify, I fall into the former category, not the latter. I think Simone Biles did the right thing in prioritizing her mental health, even if it meant missing some major events this Olympics. To do otherwise would’ve been a danger to her mental and her physical health, which is more important than any Olympic medal.

Yet, at the same time, it seems like there’s often been something missing from the conversations about Simone Biles and her mental health. That “something” is how sexual abuse is statistically shown to have a major negative impact on one’s mental health. Biles is a very famous example of this fact, and as such is someone whose story should highlight that fact.

As many know by now, Biles was one of many women from the United States Gymnastics Team abused by former Olympic doctor Larry Nassar.[1] And when I say many women, I mean many—she was among the 156 women who, in some form, confronted Nassar in court about his abuse.[2] However, she is the last woman knowingly abused by Nassar who is still on the United States Gymnastics Team. And, you can tell that Biles is still working through the abuse she experienced just by listening to her—after struggling on one of the nights of Olympic trials, she said that she was more emotional this year than in 2016 “because of everything I’ve been through.”[3] While yes, there have been other factors that have impacted her mental health, such as a sudden family death during the Olympics,[4] it seems impossible to deny that the mental health struggles related to the abuse she experienced have also affected her.

Yet, it’s not just Biles who is affected mentally as a result of abuse. It’s many other people, too. About 70% of rape or sexual assault victims experience moderate to severe distress. 33% of women who are raped contemplate taking their lives. 13% of women who are raped actually attempt to take their lives.[5] Numbers like these show that Biles’ mental health struggles in the wake of what Larry Nassar did to her do not exist in a bubble; instead, she is a very public example of how such struggles in the light of abuse manifest themselves.

As such, while the story of Simone Biles should be a call to all of us as individuals and our society as a whole to have a greater focus on mental health, her story should arguably, even more importantly, be a call to have a greater focus on the mental health of sexual abuse survivors than what we currently do. While Biles is fortunate to be able to have a therapist,[6] not everyone is so fortunate for one reason or another, whether it be financial costs of going to therapy or still struggling through their own stigmas surrounding it. Our society needs to do a better job of addressing those barriers, because the well-being and lives of those sexually abused count on it.

If you’re in the United States, experienced sexual abuse and need help, know that you can call the National Sexual Assault Telephone line, which is (800) 656-4673. If you don’t live in the United States, please check to see if there’s a helpline for sexual abuse survivors in your country.

The Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network (RAINN) also has an online hotline as well as an app that could be of use to people who need help but are afraid to speak out loud for fear that their abuser will hear them.

The National Suicide Prevention lifeline is 800-273-8255. As for readers outside the United States, you can find an extensive list of international suicide hotlines here.


[1] https://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-42725339

[2] Ibid.

[3] https://www.usatoday.com/story/life/health-wellness/2021/08/03/simone-biles-wins-bronze-her-most-powerful-mental-health-quotes/5452785001/

[4] https://abc13.com/simone-biles-withdraw-aunt-death-in-the-family/10929337/

[5] https://www.rainn.org/statistics/victims-sexual-violence

[6] https://www.usatoday.com/story/life/health-wellness/2021/08/03/simone-biles-wins-bronze-her-most-powerful-mental-health-quotes/5452785001/

On the Naomi Osaka Situation

I am not even a tennis fan, and yet it caught my attention when Naomi Osaka, one of the top tennis players in the world, withdrew from the French Open (one of the biggest tournaments of the tennis season) last week as a result of a dispute with event organizers about her decision not to speak with news media during the event.[1] There can be disputes between athletes and the press, but seldom (if ever) does it get to a point that a star athlete withdraws from a major event.

However, it was no ordinary dispute between an athlete and the press. Osaka has made it clear that her decision to avoid the press was due to the impact press conferences had on her mental health—something that should not be taken lightly given the fact that the tennis star noted that she has suffered from “long bouts of depression” for years. And yet, in spite of the fact that she made it clear that the decision was made in order to take care of her mental health, she was given a $15,000 fine from the organizers of the French Open and was threatened with expulsion from the tournament.[2] As a result of all of this, Osaka withdrew from the tournament entirely.

As someone who knows people who battle depression, I am personally sympathetic to Osaka. Others have been much less sympathetic. However, regardless of where your own sympathies lie in this instance, there are some things that I think all of us should try to learn from this situation:

  • Successful people can struggle with their mental health. This should be the first, and maybe most obvious, thing that people should get from this whole situation. Osaka is a world-class tennis player, a winner in four “Grand Slam” tournaments,[3] and considered one of the top women’s tennis players in the world right now. And yet she goes through long bouts of depression. This goes to show that depression is not just for people who are struggling with life in general—highly successful people can go through it too.
  • Even successful people can have certain things that give them a ton of anxiety. For Osaka, it is speaking with the press—she said that she feels “huge waves of anxiety” before speaking with the press.[4] In other words, successful people are human too!
  • Different people process similar events or situations in different ways, and that is okay. To see how this can be the case, look at how Osaka and one of her tennis competitors, Serena Williams, deal with invasive and inappropriate questions from the press. Some people argue that since Serena Williams can weather through the pressure of such press conferences, so should Osaka. But, the fact is that Williams and Osaka are different people with probably different things that have an impact on their mental health.
  • Punishing someone for avoiding a certain obligation out of self-care puts that individual into a box: either forcing them to do the certain thing they’re avoiding out of self-care, or simply going in a different direction entirely. When the organizers of the French Open (who, in my humble opinion, should be ashamed of themselves) gave the punishment they did to Osaka, those were the two options she had: she could’ve avoided self-care by facing the press (which she decided not to do) or go in a different direction (which, in this case for Osaka, meant withdrawing from the French Open). Either way, punishing someone’s attempt at self-care as they’re battling something like anxiety or depression is not wise, and if one is not careful, could put someone’s life in peril.

These are just a few of the takeaways I have from the Osaka situation, though if others have other takeaways, feel free to let me know in the comments section below. Regardless, I want, and hope, that the situation with Osaka can be an opportunity to think not just about the mental health of athletes, but about mental health in general.


[1] Read more about the dispute here: https://www.theguardian.com/sport/2021/may/31/naomi-osaka-withdraws-french-open-press-conference-fines-tennis

[2] Ibid.

[3] “Grand Slams” are the biggest tournaments on the tennis calendar, the tournaments with the most prestige. Those Grand Slams are the Australian Open, the French Open, Wimbledon, and the US Open.

[4] Ibid.

Mental Health and the Coronavirus

As some readers might happen to know, May is Mental Health Awareness Month. Given that fact, I think it is time for me to talk about something that I probably should’ve covered on my blog long ago: the topic of mental health and the Coronavirus.

That being said, given the trauma that some of us have experienced and may be continuing to experience from the sicknesses and losses of family members, coworkers, neighbors, and or/friends, the topic of mental health and the coronavirus is still very relevant, I think.

I am not a mental health expert. However, my own experiences, the experiences of family and friends over the past year, and the stories I have heard about other similarly traumatic events have taught me a few things that I think a lot of us should keep in mind going forward:

  1. Different people deal with the same challenging, even traumatic, events in different ways. Each person’s body is different, and each person’s mental health state is different. As such, each of us is going to deal with events like what happened in the past year in a different way.
  2. It is not abnormal for some of us to deal with phobias related to a traumatic event long after that event is over. On a personal level, due to terrorist attacks involving airplanes on September 11, 2001, I’ve had a fear of low-flying airplanes ever since that day. Even though we are nearly twenty years removed from that dreadful day, it is a fear that has never gone away, and it’s a fear that may very well stay with me for the rest of my life. I’m not sharing this story to freak people out, but to instead remind us that we should not be freaked out if some of us may likewise grapple with phobias after other traumatic events, including what we’ve been through with COVID during the past fourteen months or so.
  3. Because of the difficulties (even traumas) some of us went through, it may require a little bit of patience with ourselves when we struggle emotionally do certain things for the first time since before things shut down as a result of COVID-19. I remember the hesitation I had when I took public transit for the first time since things shut down as a result of COVID, for example—there was definitely a bit of a mental barrier that I had to get through. Such will be the case for others of us, I’m sure. To make it more challenging emotionally as we sort out what things we can do (in spite of any fears we have) and what things we should avoid is the fact that COVID is still very much around and deadly—as a result, unvaccinated individuals, in particular, will need to continue acting with some level of caution.
  4. Dealing with the emotional strain of difficult events from the past year is not a linear process. For me, one of the biggest emotional strains was hearing the endless noise of hospital sirens as COVID was getting bad. There are still times that I come back to that moment and feel a little (or a lot) emotional. There is sometimes this expectation that after a certain point, we should be “over” such difficult events. That expectation is, to use a favorite President Biden expression, malarkey.
  5. There is immense emotional and mental value to in-person connection with other people, even for many of us who are introverts. I’m an introvert myself, and I readily admit that the past year has shown me that, while things like Zoom and Google Hangouts are better than nothing, there is sometimes no substitute mentally and emotionally for in-person connection. Now, I am not against the precautions that needed to be done in order to protect ourselves and others from the coronavirus (if anything, I was for those precautions). But nevertheless, the past year has also shown many of us introverts that in-person connection is so important both emotionally and mentally.

These were a few of the major things that COVID-19 have taught me in terms of caring for mental health. That being said, if there are other lessons that we should learn from a mental health standpoint as a result of COVID-19, feel free to comment below!

additional advice on how to navigate through the pandemic mentally, and for learning about resources in the event that you are struggling to navigate through the challenges of COVID-19, consult the page that the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has on mental health and COVID-19. If you don’t live in the United States, please consult the mental health resources for where you live.

What Is…the School-to-Prison Pipeline?

What appears to be a photo of someone in a prison.

In a post I made a couple of months ago about policing and schools with majority-minority populations, one of the replies to my post reminded me of how there was a connection between what I talked about and something called the “school-to-prison pipeline.” And, it is indeed the case that there is a connection between the post I wrote about a couple of months ago and the school-to-prison pipeline.

But what it is the school-to-prison pipeline?

In short, it is “a disturbing national trend wherein children are funneled out of public schools and into the juvenile and criminal justice systems.”[1] This trend, which some kids from disadvantaged backgrounds are particularly vulnerable to (hence, this is an issue that often disproportionately affects kids of color and kids with mental health issues, to name two particular populations), involves isolating and punishing kids who cause trouble in school, in the process pushing them out of school and into the juvenile and criminal justice systems. In many such cases, various educational and counseling services might be most warranted, but instead students are often isolated and punished.

Some issues that lead to the school-to-prison pipeline include, but are not limited, to:

  • Zero-tolerance policies, which impose severe punishments upon students regardless of circumstances. Such policies are often punitive to the point that the punishment does not fit the crime. Such policies can push students out of the “school” part of the school-to-prison pipeline.
  • Police officers at schools, who are often responsible for policing the hallways at schools—a role usually reserved for teachers and school administrators. This can lead to something called school-based arrests—an issue that happens with some frequency.[2] Worse yet, these arrests can happen on quite a few occasions for minor behaviors,[3] issues that might not have resulted in arrest were it not for police officers at schools.
  • A lack of resources for many schools, which means that the extra educational support or counseling support that a troubled student might need is not available. Because of that lack of availability to such vital services (and generally the lack of ability some schools have in providing vital services), students can be at an increased risk for dropping out and for future legal involvement.[4]

So how do we address this pipeline?

For one thing, I think we need to go back to a question I asked in my previous blog post on policing and schools with majority-minority populations: Should we really have police officers in schools? I know that “abolish the police” is a controversial idea, but if police in schools don’t protect the schools, don’t protect the students at the schools, and mostly serve as a major enabler in the school-to-prison pipeline, then I honestly think that law enforcement at schools is doing way more harm than good. One other thing I will add is that if there must be law enforcement in schools (and I’m not convinced personally that it is something we must have), I think it is a must that said law enforcement is competent in interacting with kids the age that they’re supposed to work with and protect.

For another thing, zero-tolerance policies need to be reevaluated. Not all actions should receive the same punishment. Creating an environment of restorative justice (repairing the harm caused by the crime, as well as giving the offender the opportunity to do better in the future) as opposed to punitive justice (punishing the offender severely, regardless of the severity of the crime) gives an opportunity for people to learn from their mistakes, not to mention that it creates an environment likely to decrease the chances of seeing the school-to-prison pipeline come to fruition.

Last, but not least, in cases where local municipalities are unable to provide the resources needed for schools to be well-resourced, I think that states and the federal government need to step in and make sure said schools and school districts are properly resourced. A significant piece of school funding relies on local property taxes,[5] which means that if you live in an area where property values are depressed, then revenue from property taxes is depressed. This creates a ripple effect which leads to school funding in a district also being depressed. Depressed school funding, in turn, results in a lack of access to many resources for the students who need them the most.

The school-to-prison pipeline is shameful. Hopefully, in my lifetime, progress can be made to address this problem.


[1] https://www.aclu.org/issues/juvenile-justice/school-prison-pipeline

[2] There were nearly 70,000 such arrests nationwide in the 2013-14 school year. I would like to see more current data, but this number gives us a sense of how much of a problem this was, as of a few years ago: https://www.edweek.org/which-students-are-arrested-most-in-school-u-s-data-by-school#/overview

[3] https://steinhardt.nyu.edu/metrocenter/ejroc/ending-student-criminalization-and-school-prison-pipeline

[4] https://www.aclu.org/issues/juvenile-justice/school-prison-pipeline

[5] https://www.npr.org/2016/04/18/474256366/why-americas-schools-have-a-money-problem