Sport for mental health in Africa

This article was submitted as part of our call to reshape the future of sport and development.

Sport-based interventions can be used as a powerful way to promote mental health. The South African Federation for Mental Health (SAFMH) and Waves for Change have teamed up to share their insights on how sport (especially surfing) can be used in conjunction with other evidence-based practices to improve mental health.

SAFMH is a national human rights organization focused on mental health and committed to ensuring that all people in South Africa have access to the quality mental health care they need. We work with 17 community-based organizations that provide direct services and support to mental health care users nationwide, including prevention and promotional efforts. We operate a Mental Health Helpdesk through which we provide information and refer people in need to mental health and other service providers, and we also act as a resource center for all mental health issues.

Waves for Change is an evidence-based, youth-friendly, preventive mental health intervention. led on the basis of a youth PhD studies on what children believe is important for them to experience positive well-being. Waves for Change offers surf therapy for youth between the ages of 9 and 16 on 5 beaches in the Western and Eastern Cape provinces of South Africa.

The program works with children who have been abandoned toxic stress as well as neurodiverse children Living in underserved communities to help all of them gain self-control and coping tools to deal with stressful events in their communities. Waves for Change has over 2000 participants attending weekly sessions at the beach sites each year and works closely with schools and other community partners.

What is mental health?

  • We all have mental health, just as we are all physically healthy. Your mental health needs to be taken care of just like you take care of your physical health
  • Mental health is when You feel comfortable, able to handle the normal stresses of life, work productively and contribute to your community
  • Mental health is NOT a mental health condition
  • Mental illness is clinically diagnosed by a mental health professional such as a clinical psychologist, clinical social worker, or psychiatrist
  • Anyone can get a mental illness. 2017, 10.7% of people worldwide were living with a mental disorder (792 million people)
  • There is nothing shameful about having a mental illnessany more than high blood pressure, diabetes or cancer are shameful

How can surfing as a sport benefit mental health?

The people of our community expect many things from men. They say things like “men don’t cry”. Since I’ve been with W4C I’ve learned things as they have provided me with many tools. I know when I’m stressed now, I know how to calm myself down through meditation and Take 5. I share this with other guys.”

Luxolo poncoWaves for Change youth mentor and earlier program

Physical activity and particularly difficult individual activities that can be done in a group, such as B. surfing, are effective Catalysts for mental health prevention and intervention innovations. These activities require focus and motivation flow conditions, which in turn allows participants to take a break from negative thoughts and emotions.

Surfing (and sports) offers opportunities to build social connections and improve emotional management when associated evidence-based activities. Providing a physical and emotional safe space in areas lacking mental health care and social support structures has emerged as the key to community-based mental innovation.

By integrating service delivery into a physical activity context, initial stigma related to mental health Discussions are avoided. Participants who play sports may experience benefits such as: Sense of belonging and building self-esteem and resilience. They can also learn skills for maintaining their mental health, recognizing when they are struggling with their mental health, and what steps to take to manage it.

What needs to be done at national level?

Based on extensive research, the World Health Organization (WHO) has created a chart that explains the optimal mix of mental health services in a country.

Figure 1: World Health Organization service organization pyramid for optimal mix of mental health services.

Interventions that promote self-care and are rooted in the community form the foundation of the pyramid. These are relatively inexpensive and should be easily accessible. An example of such interventions would be those that combine exercise with evidence-based therapeutic practices (eg cognitive behavioral therapy or behavioral activation) to promote mental health.

In a country like South Africa, where talk of mental health is still stigmatized and Western models of therapy are seen as taboo and sometimes culturally inappropriate, sports therapy can be easily adapted to communities with less resistance, or individuals who feel marginalized from the larger community.

These sport-based health promotion interventions often do not require specialized mental health professionals, but still provide opportunities effective and inexpensive mental health support. By using task sharing – where non-specialist health workers (e.g. psychosocial counselors and peer mentors) are trained to provide psychosocial interventions – we can improve access to mental health care at the national level. This is particularly important in countries like South Africa where there simply are not enough specialized human resources for mental health care in the country. In 2019, only three of the nine federal states have child psychiatrists in the public service.

Unfortunately, the triangle is reversed in South Africa. From the skinny 5% mental health funds from the public health budget, 86% is spent on inpatient psychiatric care. This means that only a fraction of the people who need mental health support in the country can access it.

We don’t have enough interventions that promote mental health at the community level. Sport-based health promotion interventions do this. We need more of these interventions, especially for young people, as mental health problems have emerged critical development phase can have immediate and long-term adverse effects on functioning, development, and well-being, including poorer social functioning, increased risk of unemployment, impaired academic performance, and increased risk of self harm and suicide.

In resource-constrained countries such as South Africa, there is a need to establish novel, youth-friendly and accessible community-based services that engage and inform youth and can complement all established hospital-based models of youth mental health care. there isn’t much of that.

This would allow us to address many mental health problems before they become mental illnesses. This not only benefits the individual, but also relieves our health system and on the economy.

Why invest in exercise-based mental health interventions?

Sport-based health promotion interventions have been found to improve mood, build self-esteem and reduce risk the development of other non-communicable diseases such as diabetes and obesity, including and among adolescents.

It turns out that interventions that use sport can be appropriate by the participants. In a systematic review, the researchers found that participants in several studies reported positive experiences with exercise-based health promotion interventions, suggesting that adolescents enjoy playing sports while learning about basic health practices.

These interventions are relatively inexpensive and rooted in the community, making them more than that accessible.

About SAFMH and Waves for Change

Waves for Change operates its youth-friendly mental health service in 5 beachfront locations in the Eastern and Western Cape provinces of South Africa. Waves for Change focuses on coastal communities, particularly in township communities affected by violence, poverty and conflict, where mental health services are often stigmatized and underfunded. To find out more about her work, you can contact her at: [email protected]

SAFMH provides an information desk for anyone with questions about accessing mental health services. We’re also moving into winter, a time when fewer people are likely to engage in physical activity to maintain their mental well-being. We ask that you take care of yourself during this time. One such way is to link you to resources, e.g. B. A self-help plan that outlines how to prioritize behaviors that are good for you, or community-based mental health organizations available in your area.


Shayni Geffen is a mental health public advocate, researcher and practitioner with more than 6 years of experience supporting community-based organizations in less resourced settings to improve the mental wellbeing of the populations they serve. Shayni is currently Project Manager for Advocacy and Awareness at the South African Federation for Mental Health.

Aviwe Funani is Policy and Advocacy Manager for Waves for Change, an innovative South African mental health organization. Aviwe is a member of the Global Shapers Community, an initiative of the World Economic Forum, and an outgoing member of the Youth Advisory Council Member for Orygen Global, a global organization dedicated to helping countries and communities around the world implement programs and supports that embrace the mental Local health needs of young people

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