OPINION | There’s a war on our psyches … please SpeakUP!

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As if we are not already bruised. There are the four C’s – Covid and Climate Change, glocally (that is globally and locally), and Crime and Corruption, locally.

Plus all the other brutalities of our day and age: Gender-based violence, taxi violence, gangsterism, all the ongoing global conflicts – you name it. A

nd while we’re desperately doomscrolling from bad news to worse news – as if all of these are not enough for our poor psyches – we’re also witnessing, unbelievably, a conventional war.

And then suddenly we hear about “war crimes”. Is that not an oxymoron? A contradictio in terminis? Is a war not already a crime? Where does a war end and war crimes begin?

Saddest of all: If we add all of this up, it means there is a war on our psyches.

But please, for our own sake, let’s not suffer in silence.

Indeed, if you follow the Varsity Cup series, you’ll know SpeakUP is the message of this year’s series.

And, as if on cue to reinforce the message, a recent study found that mental health in South Africa ranked among the worst in the world. In fact, the Annual Mental State of the World Report found that our country has one of the lowest mental health scores globally.

Mental wellbeing was measured on a scale from “distressed”, as the lowest, to “thriving”, as the highest. In between were “struggling”, “enduring”, “managing” and “succeeding”. Those who were “distressed” or “struggling” increased from 28.5% in 2020 to 36% in 2021.

In simple terms this means that in 2020 just more than one in four struggled with mental ill-health. Last year it was more than a third of us. In other words, more than one in three people.

Our campuses’ rugby heroes are showing us the way. Over the past 15 years, Varsity Cup’s Pink Shorts have become synonymous with various social causes.

This year, the tournament puts the spotlight on mental health, an issue that clearly developed to a crisis level under Covid-19. 

The SpeakUP campaign is the result of the Ithemba Foundation and Varsity Cup joining hands to break the silence and the stigma around mental health. Ithemba means hope in isiXhosa, and the non-profit raises awareness of mental ill-health such as depression and anxiety as clinical, biological illnesses, and therefore treatable.

Our student rugby heroes are our Ambassadors of Hope. Through these student athletes, not only whole campuses are reached, but also students’ families and friends. Add the TV and social media audiences of about 1,45 million viewers, and a huge difference can be made through the very simple message of the campaign, which encourages people to speak out.

With this year’s tournament’s spotlight on mental health, it also means the Player of the Match will wear that now iconic personalised Pink Shorts to bring attention to this cause. The tournament’s semi-finals will be played on 18 April, and the finals on 25 April.

Xhanti-Lomzi Nesi, tournament manager for Varsity Cup, says “Mental health has emerged as one of the biggest challenges facing the youth.

Through our SpeakUP campaign, we want to encourage our players, fans and the broader community to become more aware of their own mental health and take action.” He adds: “We could never have imagined how Covid-19 would change our world over the past two years.”

Varsity Cup also publishes helpful content on its website throughout the tournament to further drive awareness around mental health. 

Indeed, rugby players, being the participating campuses’ superheroes, can help immensely by normalising and humanising mental health through doing what they do best, and that is playing rugby.

Eunice Visagie, Stellenbosch-based sports journalist who has covered the Varsity Cup and Varsity Sports series for years, says the pressure that student athletes experience is immense. “They are full-time students and full-time sportspeople.” Also: “It would mean so much if these students can share their stories of how they themselves have benefited from mental health support to help them cope.”

It’s true: Life is hard. There is a war on our psyches. But we can look out for another. And there is always someone to talk to. Let’s embrace Hope and always remember: If we take the I out of Illness and replace it with we, it becomes Wellness.

Lizette Rabe is professor at Stellenbosch University, founder of the Ithemba Foundation and a mental health advocate.

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