Ideasroom

The special pressures on top Pasifika rugby players

There needs to be a change in the way we view mental health and treat our young Pacific men so that they feel that they can reach out and talk, writes the University of Auckland's Caleb Marsters

Pacific athletes are central to the cultural and economic growth of both professional rugby codes in Aotearoa, Australia and increasingly in Europe. In Aotearoa, Pacific peoples make up just over 7.4 percent of the population, yet Pacific men account for almost 50 percent of all provincial rugby union players.

The number of young Pacific men participating at elite level, or striving to, will increase over the next 10 years. This is evidenced by the large proportion of junior representative rugby union and rugby league players of Pacific heritage.

While this success is to be celebrated within our Pacific communities, there are positives and negatives associated with the journey to professional stardom in both our rugby codes. Most young players that make it to professional level are able to adapt to the physical challenges that come their way; however, less discussed is the abundance of psychological challenges that can, for some, be more challenging to cope with.

The pressures of professional rugby have been well documented. Leaving home to live in another city, adjusting to an unfamiliar social environment, and enduring long, hard playing seasons alongside social and familial obligations, are tough for any young person, and exacerbated for those in the spotlight where every little action is in the public eye.

Many young athletes will also struggle to compete in the cut-throat athletic job market, which unravels another set of challenges when one is forced to transition away from elite sports. These pressures can be too much without anyone to talk to and effective wellbeing strategies in place.

Understanding mental wellbeing is complex and differs between and within cultures. It can be even more challenging for some young Pacific people who grow up around multiple and sometimes contradictory worldviews. In general, Pacific perceptions of mental wellbeing are holistic, based largely on collectivism and the relation between self and space.

This collectivist worldview is evident in the way Pacific athletes perceive ‘success’. Without generalising, some young Pacific male rugby players see success as revolving around family and God. Sporting achievement is seen as a family achievement rather than that of the individual. Conversely, ‘failure’ leads to a sense of shame or embarrassment and is associated with ‘letting the family down’.

Gender stereotypes, in particular perceptions around masculinity or ‘what it means to be a man’, influence the views of young Pacific men towards mental health and asking for help.

So, the question is – what can we do? In a nutshell, rather than committing to an athletic identity based solely on their sporting talents, young Pacific athletes must be able to explore other avenues of their identity away from sports. Cultivating a balanced athletic identity and strong support systems are among the greatest protective factors we have for supporting young Pacific men while they chase their sporting dreams. Athlete career development must prepare athletes for success after sports. 

The majority of professional rugby players will only have brief careers at the elite level and will face additional stresses as they transition away from professional sports. Players have to find alternative means of income and may be forced to confront the limitations of their athletic ability and question who they are away from sports.

It is often family and friends who assist Pacific athletes once they leave elite sports. Most athletes flourish post-retirement, but others struggle. The transition away from elite sport is a lot smoother for athletes who are well supported socially, have prepared for life after sports in advance, and have some sort of educational or vocational qualification. Encouragingly, a number of initiatives are emerging within our major professional sporting organisations to prepare athletes for this transition and ensure the right support is provided for players leaving the elite environment.

Gender is another key determinant of mental wellbeing that is often overlooked, and there are many marked gender differences in the rates of certain mental illnesses and mental health-related outcomes. Gender stereotypes, in particular perceptions around masculinity or ‘what it means to be a man’, influence the views of young Pacific men towards mental health and asking for help.

Expectations to abide to these stereotypes are heightened for young rugby players who must navigate an environment where stoicism and emotionless qualities are associated with ‘discipline’ and ‘mental toughness’ while displays of emotion or help-seeking may be perceived as ‘weak’. The rise of professionalism in women’s rugby union and rugby league also presents new challenges for sporting organisations and communities, and similarly requires appropriate cultural and gender-specific responses.

However, the environment of elite sports is but a microcosm of wider society. While each community and sub-community have their own unique views and experiences regarding mental health, this stigma and tapu (taboo) attached to mental health remains for all people regardless of age, ethnicity, gender, or sporting prowess.

In Pacific communities, there is still substantial tapu around mental health and hesitancy to seek help from mainstream community mental health services.

Mental health and suicide are priority issues for Aotearoa and require urgent address. The demand for culturally-responsive ethnic-specific mental health services is also growing in Aotearoa. In Pacific communities, there is still substantial tapu around mental health and hesitancy to seek help from mainstream community mental health services. Culturally-responsive services aim to fill this gap and improve the accessibility, approachability, and quality of care for Pacific communities by centring cultural values and protocol.

Seeking help from a counsellor should hold no more stigma than visiting the doctor, yet it does and is something most people, particularly young Pacific men, do not feel comfortable doing.

It quickly becomes clear that mental wellbeing is not an individual or familial responsibility, but a societal one. Globally, we must work towards developing societies that are conducive to fostering mental wellbeing and healthy discussions around mental health.

We need far less medicalisation of the everyday challenges of life and more culturally-appropriate approaches to mental wellbeing, which build upon the numerous strengths of our Pacific communities.

The focus must be on both individual and communal wellbeing. We don't just need more psychiatrists or hospital beds; we need more practical support within our communities to reduce the burden of socioeconomic challenges and cultivate a high quality of life for our communities. I often point towards the Treasuries Living Standards Framework as a step towards this vision – prioritising wellbeing as a central indicator of our country’s success.

The signs of change are promising however, with numerous grassroots and professional organisations working towards supporting and empowering our Pacific communities. Not for, but with. As stated earlier, our communities are full of strengths and our peoples often exhibit substantial resilience in the face of adversity.

There needs to be a change in the way we view mental health and treat our young men so that they feel that they can reach out and talk about the issues, pressures and stresses they are facing. From a sporting perspective, encouragement and time needs to be set aside for young men to do so by team staff, coaches and other officials. More broadly however, we must make the time for such discussions to take place in our own homes and communities with our kids, our siblings, our parents/caregivers, and our mates.

Similarly, life challenges in themselves can become overwhelming for our youth at times and we must be prepared to support them to get through the trying times and come to terms with the emotions and thoughts they may experience during these times. Such discussions can be difficult, but there are many resources out there to help our youth and Pacific families along the way.

Both the challenges and solutions around supporting mental wellbeing are complex and each situation demands a unique approach. Whether its elite sports, education, the arts, or the trades, one thing that is clear is that we all want our youth to ‘flourish’ in life. In order to achieve that goal, we cannot shy away from discussion on mental health, rather we should work together to muster the strength to have these discussions with our loved ones. Kia orana e kia manuia (may you live long and have good fortune).

Where to get help

Need to talk? Free call or text 1737 any time for support from a trained counsellor.

Lifeline – 0800 543 354 or 09 5222 999 within Auckland.

Youthline – 0800 376 633, free text 234 or email talk@youthline.co.nz or online chat.

Samaritans – 0800 726 666.

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