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  • Soccer Without Borders

Swap Mushiana Named SWB’s First Director of Behavioral Health & Wellness

Soccer Without Borders (SWB) is thrilled to announce that Swap Mushiana has been named our first-ever Director of Behavioral Health and Wellness. Not only does he come to us with years of valuable experience in the behavioral health field and with a Doctorate in Clinical Psychology from the University of San Francisco, but Swap has also been an active member of the SWB community in Oakland for nearly a decade! 

This new role underscores our commitment to addressing the holistic needs of both our newcomer participants and the coach-mentors who serve them every day. In recent years, the grassroots soccer world has touted the role of coaches as mentors, recognizing the importance of youth participants having trusted, adult role models in their lives. While coaches are uniquely positioned to be mental health supports for student athletes, this great responsibility often comes with its own set of challenges, pressures, and complexities.

According to a recent study published by EdWeek, coaches in the United States reported feeling confident promoting good sportsmanship, making participants feel welcome, and teaching basic sporting techniques and skills. Yet, these same coaches often felt less equipped to help athletes navigate the pressures of social media, linking them to mental health resources, referring them to support systems for unmet basic needs, and identifying off-the-field stressors. 

At SWB, we serve newcomer youth and marginalized girls coming to us from 82 countries and speaking 46 languages. Every one of our newcomer participants has their own unique story to tell, but regardless of the circumstances that led to their arrival in the United States, all are immediately faced with a vast number of challenges which can often feel insurmountable.

As our new Director of Behavioral Health and Wellness, Swap will lead all aspects of SWB’s wellness initiatives for youth, players, and coaches. Additionally, he will work to validate SWB methodologies as evidenced-based mental and behavioral health practices that are effective in supporting vulnerable newcomer youth and marginalized girls.

Learn more about Swap as he shares his personal journey with soccer and his vision for supporting the health and wellness of refugee youth and their coaches.

Can you describe your personal connection with the game of soccer?

My father set the foundation for my relationship with soccer. He was a very talented player and he lights up when talking about his playing days in India. He would speak about the joy, passion and freedom he felt playing, which was in contrast to his painful and challenging childhood. My parents immigrated to America in the 1980’s and sacrificed a lot for my siblings and I. Although they were busy trying to make it in this country, my father knew soccer would provide a healthy outlet and new opportunities for us down the road. He was right: soccer gave me community, soccer helped shape my identity, and soccer was my pathway to higher education. I would not be a psychologist if it were not for soccer. The life lessons from the game are embedded in me. The wisdom from those lessons reveal themselves each time I experience a setback or challenge myself to improve. 

How did you first get connected to SWB?

I first got involved about ten years ago at the SWB Oakland summer camp. I was starting my doctoral training at the time and stayed connected with several coaches over the years. It came full circle as I had the opportunity to help SWB part-time as I finished up my postdoctoral training. What inspired me to join was watching SWB coaches intuitively deliver behavioral interventions from the heart on the soccer field. I was blown away by how effective they were in relating to such a diverse group of youth. The SWB coaches were nuanced at creating a positive container for the group; a skill mental health providers utilize in our work. The impact was undeniable. I was watching 30+ players from different cultural backgrounds express themselves and be vulnerable in response to the community created by SWB staff. I saw SWB coaches as fellow travelers – they were doing their version of health and healing on the field, whereas I conducted my behavioral health in hospital settings. It only made sense to team up. 

What unique challenges do refugee youth face regarding mental health and wellness, and how can SWB (or the game of soccer) help mitigate these challenges?

It is essential to consider the contexts refugee youth navigate when discussing mental health and wellness. Refugee youth and their families endure interlocking forms of physical, political, economic, and cultural violence in their countries of origin. Many endure trauma and loss during the migration process. After relocation, refugee youth find themselves in societies where access to social, health, and economic resources are non-existent or inadequate. Furthermore, they experience discrimination and are barred from establishing meaningful pathways to education and employment. The downstream effects of these forces result in elevated levels of mental health concerns without access to mental health services due to high cost, barred access to insurance, and lack of culturally responsive providers in schools and the community. 

SWB’s approach to belonging is responsive to the structural forms of exclusion refugee youth face. Our programs are situated in the gap of social, educational, and health services for refugee youth. SWB uses soccer as a language to build community. The game provides a context where individual diverse backgrounds and skills are advantageous for collective success; this collectivism is deeply understood by immigrant and refugee communities. Soccer, and other sports, gives permission for expression, for youth to have agency to allow parts of themselves to be shared with others as they play. The goal is create an experience for youth where they are affirmed for sharing themselves, that all of their identities are valued and belong. We know that an increased sense of belonging is correlated with health outcomes. SWB cultivates a space through soccer where our youth’s identities and experiences are lifted up rather than oppressed. SWB builds on belonging as a foundation and identifies mental health issues to provide behavioral health and wellness support from a trusted mentor to help mitigate behavioral health issues. 

Why is it important for organizations like SWB to have dedicated positions for Behavioral Health and Wellness?

Again, we must consider context. This time the context of mental health services here in America and abroad. There are critical gaps in mental health access for youth along with service barriers to receiving necessary mental health care. At same time, we see elevated rates of mental health issues for youth globally. This means we must dedicate resources and positions to drive behavioral health programs within our organizations and build partnerships with healthcare and educational systems to address the need for our youth. Dedicated positions for behavioral health and wellness are tasked with the need for providing an appropriate level of training and resources for SWB staff as they serve our youth. 

What role do coach-mentors play in supporting the mental health and wellness of youth participants?

SWB coaches are practitioners in my opinion. They provide direct services to immigrant and refugee youth as part of their craft within the profession of sports-based youth development. SWB practitioners play a critical role in the health and wellness of immigrant and refugee youth. They are often the front line for social emotional learning and behavioral management. SWB practitioners have a holistic lens of our youth’s needs, their hopes and fears, their stressors and strengths. They are often the only adult that supports youth on the field, classrooms, at their homes, and in the community. SWB practitioners utilize their unique lens to support our youth to thrive across context. They share their perspective and learn through collaboration with a community of providers across healthcare, schools, and social service settings. 

Can you share your vision for how SWB can better address the mental health and wellness needs of refugee and immigrant youth?

Interestingly, I think part of the vision has been realized prior to my arrival to SWB. The people at SWB that preceded me created and continue to cultivate an incredibly powerful space for belonging and growth. The vision that I hope to help life is to expand the net of belonging for refugee and immigrant youth. My vision is to build sustainable pathways from SWB programming to healthcare systems, employment opportunities, and social services. As the net of support increases, we will upskill SWB practitioners in behavioral health techniques to address mild to moderate mental health issues and facilitate engagement of services for higher level needs. Over time, we will establish SWB delivery of behavioral health programs as part of an evidence-base to not only address mental health issues but promote resiliency and empower refugee and immigrant youth to thrive.


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