Wed | Dec 6, 2023

Young gymnast back at peace after bout with depression

Published:Monday | March 28, 2022 | 12:08 AMAndre Williams/Staff Reporter
Gymnast Michala Virgo smiles alongside designer Michael Thomas. The gymnast won two individual medals at the Gasparilla Classics in Miami and is launching a leotard line.
Gymnast Michala Virgo smiles alongside designer Michael Thomas. The gymnast won two individual medals at the Gasparilla Classics in Miami and is launching a leotard line.

Quick and effective intervention saved a 15-year-old ­gymnastic rising star who had been experiencing mental challenges during the COVID-19 pandemic to be back at peace with her favourite sport – and life – after her mother stumbled on a troubling note.

Michala Virgo, student athlete at Merl Grove High, reaped success last month at the Gasparilla Classic 2022 in Tampa Bay, Florida.

She is a bright prospect in the sport of gymnastics, skills she has been honing since age three.

“It was a great competition to be honest. It’s been almost two years since I did a competition and my skills are getting better,” Michala said in a Gleaner interview on her return to the island with two individual medals.

That journey to glory was, however, turbulent for the national youth representative who is used to annual competitions locally and overseas.

The last two years out of competition have had a negative effect on the athletic prowess of Michala, who is a member of Nishida’s.

Her anguish was not dissimilar from that experienced by many sporting and non-sporting youth in Jamaica and the world.

Studies have shown that depression has been commonplace throughout the coronavirus outbreak, which has caused long stretches of isolation linked to disruptions in movement as a safety measure in the context of a disease that has infected 480 million globally, killing six million.

Along with community tailor Michael Thomas, Michala has used her sabbatical to create a leotard line that she is seeking to market as she embarks on bourgeoning entrepreneurship.

She will wear the line at local and international competitions and is optimistic that it will find favour with other gymnasts.

Michala has been performing at the Gasparilla Classics for the past seven years and has travelled to China, Canada, Trinidad, Barbados, and the United States for competition. Her mother, Jacqueline Powell, often goes broke to keep her dreams alive.

“Right now, I really need some help. Michala’s father was the backbone who supported her financially. He became ill two years now, and that’s where it stop, and I had to take it up,” said the mother.

“Sometimes kids get demotivated because their parents are unable to take care of certain things, so they get fed up. I don’t want Michala to get to that point. She is just recovering from a serious depression that she was going through,” Powell added.

She told The Gleaner that Michala’s father’s ailment has also taken a toll on the child as she is accustomed to him being on trips with her.

The pandemic, Powell said, brought her daughter challenges that were bigger than the flips and twists of the sport – which resurrects memories of American gymnastic star Simone Biles, who crashed out of Olympic competitions last summer because of mental health challenges.

At one point Michala’s concerned mother had to literally beg her daughter to go to the gym, and she often found excuses for absence because of the depression she faced.

“It happened that I stumbled on a note, and I was shocked to see what my daughter wrote in the note, and that is why I decided that I have to get close to this child. I have to do what I have to do to save my child,” Powell told The Gleaner.

She sought the help of coach Tristan Hall, with whom Michala has been working since infanthood and who has been instrumental beyond on and off the floor.

Michala confirmed that the intervention of Hall, who she describes as a father figure, was vital.

“He is always there for me. There is a bond there where he plays the coach role, brother role, and father role,” she said, adding that there is more success to be had from their partnership.

Hall, a gymnastic coach for 13 years, is currently in the US canvassing for further ideas to develop youth like Michala.

He, too, had to consider shutting down in the pandemic and credited the grace of God for keeping his doors open.

“I had to be trying to keep the gym, the business, afloat during COVID. Keep the kids in the sport and keep them progressing despite all the things the COVID wave threw at us with the limited training days, curfews, and lockdowns,” Hall told The Gleaner.

Michala is back in face-to-face classes and acknowledges that renewed interaction with her peers has filled a void.

“I couldn’t focus on online classes. I just couldn’t do it. Yes, they are more excited than I am,” she said of her peers about her successes.

Powell is also thankful for the school family at Merl Grove High, her community, and church who have been there for them during hard times.

From age four, Michala said that she wanted to become a gymnast, and Powell says she is sure that her daughter, with hard work, will represent Jamaica at the Olympics in the future.

She is supporting Michala and her clothing line and is hoping that corporate sponsors will assist with the cause.

The Ministry of Health and Wellness, the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), and the Caribbean Child Development Centre at The University of the West Indies Open Campus last week launched ‘U-Matter’, a new chatline to provide mental-health support for Jamaican youth aged 16-24.

The free chatline will operate via mobile messaging through the U-Report platform created by UNICEF.

Young people who need support can send messages at any time on their mobile phones to connect with trained counsellors.

U-Matter is designed to address the widespread mental-health challenges facing Jamaican youth.

Research shows that one in every four Jamaican students has considered suicide.

The Ministry of Health and Wellness reports that up to 60 per cent of those treated at hospitals for attempted suicide are adolescents and young people under age 24.

Polls conducted by UNICEF through U-Report, which currently has 13,000 young subscribers called U-Reporters, strongly support this evidence.

One poll in 2018 highlighted that 53 per cent of respondents said they had considered suicide.

“This is a critical time for UNICEF and our partners to introduce a service like this for young people in Jamaica, who are grappling with mental-health challenges that were worsened by the COVID-19 pandemic,” said UNICEF Jamaica Country Representative Mariko Kagoshima at the launch.

U-Matter is being funded with technical support by UNICEF for the first two years of operation, and thereafter, will be managed by the Ministry of Health and Wellness.

“The experience of the COVID pandemic has come with many side effects. One such is the impact on our young people. They have had to stay at home, many times alone, and have become lonely, anxious, and distracted from the things they look forward to as they grow up,” noted Minister of Health and Wellness Dr Christopher Tufton.

U-Matter can be reached at 876-838-4897 on WhatsApp and SMS or @ureportjamaica on Facebook Messenger.