Finding intersections between rugby, culture, and mental health
When you see a Pacific rugby player crying on the field, are they crying because they’re happy or is it because their mental health is not great? Or when you see a rugby player, do you ever wonder what is hiding behind their smiles and happiness? What about when society describes a Pacific rugby player; they are to be muscular, strong, and “ALL BRAWN AND NO BRAIN!!”. Unfortunately, we only get to see the surface level of what rugby players go through each week of their careers but never really understand what happens behind the scenes and behind closed doors.
Young Pacific males playing rugby tend to go through mental health issues, yet it is never discussed or thought of. Mental health is a topic that is not familiar or pertinent within most Pacific households and communities for Pacific males, and especially within the rugby culture. Because of the societal stigma that males are viewed as ‘warriors’, they carry this weight in everything they do. They are taught to be emotionless, to either hide and suppress them or ‘man up’, which is one that our own Pacific people have pride in. These stigmas further reinforce the cultural sensibility surrounding mental health within the Pacific culture.
I had the chance to talk to young, up and coming Pacific male rugby players from South Auckland, Ioane Moananu, Zuriel Togiatama, Francis Lesa, and Sam Tuifua, who are all currently playing for Counties Manukau Steelers. Each expressed their different thoughts on mental health and how they feel about how rugby organisations should support rugby players during their seasons. Francis Lesa mentions that he would love to see all teams, especially the local clubs have someone who “us boys [and] men are able to go talk to whenever we encounter something that we aren’t able to take on ourselves”. When are the silent battles that Pacific rugby players go through and their silent cries for help going to be heard? Zuriel Togiatama also believes there is a gap between rugby culture and mental health, that he feels that only ex-rugby players can fulfill and understand. Togiatama feels that this would be the best option for current rugby players, to talk to ex-rugby players about what they are going through because “they’ve been there and done that!”
Sometimes our Pacific brothers find it hard to find the right person to talk to. When going through hard times, the rugby players are advised to seek professional help, but too often a person who has theoretical knowledge cannot help with what these boys go through each week. Having a comfortable figure for these Pacific male rugby players will be less intimidating for them to ask for help. Pacific males have been quiet for too long about mental health and often it has been the reason our Pacific brothers have been taken away from us. Instead of suppressing the feelings that Pacific males go through, now is the time to encourage them to express it more. Talking with the four young Pacific rugby players have made me realise how serious mental health problems are within the rugby culture and how it’s been neglected far too long. It has made me realise that we need to create a safe environment and space for them to talk about their experiences. Initiatives need to be taken to help clubs’ and provincials’ athletes not only physically but also mentally and emotionally. Each of these young Pacific players were asked, “What would be a message you would like to get across not only to Pacific males playing rugby, but Pacific males in general when it comes to mental health and dealing with their feelings?” Each gave thorough and thoughtful answers that they hope will go a long way:
Ioane Moananu said, “It is okay to not be okay. It is not awkward to speak out or make you look weak if you talk about your feelings and show your vulnerable side.”
Francis Lesa expressed that “The biggest message I would like to get across to my Pacific brothers is to be open to your boys and let them know what’s going on in your life because we all go through the same struggles but we need to remember we are all one big family. Mental health is no joke and don’t be afraid to talk with your parents and siblings. They are there for a reason but my last message would be to pray about it, let our father hear your cries, leave it at his feet and he’ll never neglect you. I’ll end it with a message I saw on one of the social media platforms ‘I’d rather cry with you talking about your struggles than to cry seeing you in a coffin’.”
Sam Tuifua says “I would ask my Polynesian brothers to just speak up and don’t be shy. At times we think ‘oh nah he doesn’t care about what I have to say’ or ‘I’m too shy because they might talk behind my back’. We have to trust and give each other confidence to speak up when we’re at rock bottom or when we’re struggling at any time of life.”
For Zuriel Togiatama, it’s important to not “be ashamed, it is easier to say than do but the longer you try to hold it in and try fight it on your own, the harder and heavier everything becomes. And remember it won’t just be affecting you it’ll be affecting everyone around you. You can’t deal with it on your own. It isn’t something that can change overnight nor in a week, it will take time. But my main message [is] ‘Start with yourself and start by making one change; one change to break that cycle you are in. You matter. You have a purpose. You are loved. And it is okay to cry!’ Rugby isn’t just about the 80 minutes on the field, it’s so much more”.
PHOTO: COUNTIES MANUKAU RUGBY