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Sundowns coach Mokwena: We need to talk about mental health issues

'I have to organise and lead these sort of discussions and there are more important things in life than just football'

08 March 2022 - 08:23
Mamelodi Sundowns co-coach Rulani Mokwena says it is important for him to get rid of the stigma around mental health issues.
Mamelodi Sundowns co-coach Rulani Mokwena says it is important for him to get rid of the stigma around mental health issues.
Image: Samuel Shivambu/BackpagePix

Mamelodi Sundowns co-coach Rulani Mokwena has pleaded with the media to shine a bigger spotlight on mental health issues for elite athletes and members of society in general.

Mokwena made the request in a virtual press conference on Downs’ readiness for their Nedbank Cup last-16 round clash against Botshabelo amateurs Mathaithai FC at Lucas Moripe Stadium in Atteridgeville on Tuesday evening (kickoff 6pm).

“We sit in a situation where we speak only about football during these engagements, but I would like the media to do a lot more speaking and investigation on the importance of mental health issues within our society and in particular how that affects performances at elite level,” Mokwena said.

Mokwena said poor mental health is a pandemic weighing heavily on the shoulders of footballers and other elite athletes. He said footballers have problems in their daily lives that can surface at any time, and still have to go and perform at optimum levels.

“I spoke earlier a little bit about a pandemic that could rear its ugly head in SA football, but there is one already raising its ugly head and is gaining momentum in society. It is a pandemic that is affecting the poor and the rich, it does not care about your gender, your skin colour or racial ethnicity — it attacks everybody.

“And that is depression. Depression is a topic that I think needs a lot more of our attention to try to fight this monster that is really raising its head.

“It is just a humble plea and I make it because I always say that football is the most important of the least important things in life, and there are certain things that are more important in life including life itself.”

Mokwena said there is a stigma around speaking out on mental health issues and he believes that can only change if the topic is consistently brought into the open.

“Once you discuss it in the open you give people a lot of confidence to voice their demons that they might be combating and facing. We’re going through a very difficult time as a society and the world at large.

“Game after game, for us who sit in positions of privilege, sometimes it makes us a little oblivious to the realities that the world is facing and I think we need to speak more about these things.”

Mokwena said the isolation and social distancing that came with the Covid-19 pandemic, and elite athletes having to be cocooned in quarantine settings, has worsened and escalated the situation and further isolated those who were already vulnerable.

“During the Covid-19 pandemic we voiced how important it was to practice social distancing and that has put people in even more difficult positions on society, because people are now dealing with a lot of things alone.

“It’s now normal to be isolated from communities and your loved ones.

“Culturally and generally — [but] particularly culturally — for us as black communities and black footballers and men in particular it is seen as taboo to speak about your pressures, the situations that you face until it is too late and you can’t receive some form of support.

“What is important for me is to kill this stigma and to drive this narrative that mental health is very much like physical health where you go to the gym because you want to be fit, and not because you have got physical deficiencies. It is because you want to improve your physical status.

“Spiritual health is another important thing. You don’t go to church only because you got problems and you want to pray. You go to church because you want to awaken and strengthen your spiritual self and part of your being. You can say the same about mental health.

“Until it is something of an open topic where men can talk about it without feeling judged then we can get into that space.”

Mokwena said footballers face challenges that often lead them to lower levels of self-esteem or social anxiety with greater risk for depression. He said these challenges may impede performances.  

“I raise these issues because of the privilege of the position I am in. I have to organise and lead these sort of discussions and there are more important things in life than just football — things like mental health, happiness and family.

“Those things should be given a louder a voice than some of the things that sometimes we do.”


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