Simon Borchardt

Varsity Cup tackles mental health stigma

The Varsity Cup's pink shorts campaign will align with Varsity Sports' SpeakUp to raise awareness of mental health issues, writes SIMON BORCHARDT.

Since 2010, Varsity Cup players who were named Man of the Match have worn pink shorts in the next round of games to address and raise funds for worthy causes, including the fight against cancer and women and child abuse.

This year, the pink shorts campaign will focus on mental health.

'Anxiety and depression affect peoples' lives and relationships,' 1995 World Cup-winning Springbok captain Francois Pienaar, the CEO of ASEM, tells

'Through the SpeakUp campaign we encourage people to speak up when they are affected and guide them to professionals who can help.

'Every team in the FNB Varsity Cup and FNB Varsity Shield will have a mental health session and we will share advice through social media as to how to deal with mental health issues,' Pienaar adds. ‘Asking for help is the right thing to do and shows strength, especially when dealing with mental health problems.

'We encourage people to speak up; it's OK not to be OK.'

The SpeakUp campaign was initiated by the Ithemba Foundation, which raises awareness of depression as a biological illness. It also raises funds for research on depression.

'We asked Varsity Sports and Varsity Cup if they would help us to break the silence and stigma around mental health issues in the student sporting fraternity,' explains Ithemba founder Lizette Rabe, professor of journalism at Stellenbosch University.

'One player in a team of 10 suffers from a mental health disorder – like depression or anxiety – so if you have two rugby teams on a field, a minimum of three players will be affected. And that is a conservative estimate.

'Last year, Ithemba supported a study on the mental health of first-year students, part of a global study by the World Health Organisation, in eight countries and 19 campuses, including Stellenbosch University and UCT. The global results were the same, namely that one in three first-year students arrive on campus with a diagnosable mental health disorder. So the extent of the problem is huge.'

Varsity Sports' SpeakUp campaign has been a success, but in a macho sport like rugby, many players still choose to suffer in silence.

'I would encourage them to speak up about a mental illness as they would do about a physical illness,' says Rabe. 'Once they have broken that silence, they will be surprised at the discussion it starts.'

Rabe refers to a book written by New Zealand rugby legend John Kirwan about his battle with depression, called All Blacks Don't Cry – A Story of Hope.

'One day, Kirwan realised if he didn't seek help, something terrible was going to happen,' she explains. 'When he eventually went to see a psychiatrist, she asked him what he would do if he strained a hamstring. Kirwan said he would get physiotherapy. She told him to regard his brain as his body's main muscle and that she would be his "physiotherapist". If Kirwan, who had a highly successful rugby career, can speak up about his mental health disorder, anyone can.'

Rabe says early intervention can get someone out of a negative spiral and ensure they never reach a point where they need to be hospitalised.

'Once you've experienced a feeling of sadness and disinterest in life for a period of two weeks, you must go see your GP, who will refer you to a mental health specialist.

'Ithemba's work is all about raising awareness of mental health issues and ensuring that people, and students, in particular, are proactive about it,' Rabe adds. 'Don't self-medicate, which for students means alcohol or drugs, because you end up creating a bigger problem. And know when to ask for help – reach out and speak up.'

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