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Volume 22 No. 43
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Sparks put focus on mental health of female veterans

The WNBA team gives women a comfortable setting to share their experiences and learn about available resources.
Photo: Los Angeles Sparks
The WNBA team gives women a comfortable setting to share their experiences and learn about available resources.
Photo: Los Angeles Sparks
The WNBA team gives women a comfortable setting to share their experiences and learn about available resources.
Photo: Los Angeles Sparks

The Los Angeles Sparks held a Mental Health Night during a home game two years ago and the night was a success. But the team, and President Danita Johnson, wanted to go beyond just three hours of focus on the issue. 

 

“We knew one night wasn’t enough,” said Johnson. “We need to do more. We have to create access points, and more consistency creates more opportunity for people to actually see it and participate.” 

The organization has gone way beyond those initial three hours through its Spark the True You program, a community-based partnership with the Los Angeles departments of Mental Health and Military and Veterans Affairs. After six months of conversation between the Sparks and the two departments, the program started in March, initially as a one-year venture.

Spark the True You zeroes in on an often neglected group of people — female veterans — who don’t always feel comfortable in situations where they are lumped in with their male counterparts in the military.

“A lot of times in sports when it comes to veterans, what I think we miss is we’re often times male-focused and don’t even realize it,” said Johnson. “So how could we be more inclusive and create programs that really spoke to women?”

There are 2.2 million female veterans in the United States. One in five who visit the Department of Veterans Affairs has reported sexual trauma while serving, according to the VA. Female veterans who experience military sexual trauma are five to eight times more likely to develop post-traumatic stress disorder than those who haven’t. Since 2006, the number of homeless female veterans, many of whom are single parents, has more than doubled. And female veterans are 250% more likely to commit suicide than female civilians, the VA reports.

The Sparks created a community just for female veterans in response to the crisis. Since March, the team has held seven events in conjunction with the program’s partners that are focused on improving the lives of those veterans. Sparks players are frequent participants. 

The backbone of Spark the True You in year one was the peer-to-peer sessions held at the arena before each Sparks regular season and playoff home game, 18 in total. Some of the pregame sessions followed specific topics of discussion, like suicide prevention or dealing with transition, while others provided a comfortable setting for veterans to talk about whatever was on their mind. Afterward, the session attendees watched the Sparks game.

The peer-to-peer sessions — and the free tickets to games — created interest and consistency, which exposed more people to the program on a regular and scheduled basis. The gatherings also provided an entry point for veterans. The Sparks offered free transportation to the pregame sessions, arranging for buses to pick up program participants from an LGBTQ veterans center. That in turn drew women to the veterans center,where they could find more resources and help for issues they’re facing.

“We become that platform with our partners to keep them engaged,” said Johnson. “Our program ends in March. But now they’ve formed relationships with the Department of Mental Health, now they’ve formed relationships with the Department of Military and Veterans Affairs, and they’ll give them access to the resources they need. Now they are connected to the different resource groups. This is the gateway to get them there.” 

The Sparks have engaged more than 2,000 women directly through their programming, which doesn’t include the interactions through social media and online.

Johnson told the story of veteran Theresa Martinez, who had been homebound for three years as she dealt with an injury suffered while serving. She attended a Spark the True You group event at the Pete Archer Rowing Center and every subsequent one afterward.

“It was an emotional connection, not only because it was the first time getting out after being injured, but to be among fellow veterans,” Martinez said. “Doing the rowing experience itself and doing things we thought we couldn’t do, it was amazing.”

“This has really helped her to have that cohort of people to have dialogue with,” said Johnson, “to understand the resources, and to feel like she’s in a safe space.” 

Another veteran who Johnson learned about was a huge fan of Sparks star Candace Parker. The veteran was coping with mental health issues but through her Parker fandom discovered the Spark the True You campaign and got involved. She was connected with resources that could help her. 

Johnson said the Sparks plan to continue the program beyond next March. She said that longevity will increase the program’s impact and the team hopes to create a network of program alumni, who then will remain involved in helping female veterans.

“I loved the camaraderie,” said veteran and program participant Wendy Clousen. “We challenged ourselves, but mentally I think it made us all stronger. In our women’s disability group at the VA we were talking about it, laughing about it, sharing all of the experiences. It was all really positive.”