Over the past year, leading women in sport have spoken openly to gsport about their challenges with mental health, and the routines they are putting in place to make positive change. On this World Mental Health Day, we reflect on their individual journeys and tap into their learnings.
In May 2020, International rowing star, Lee-Ann Persse, spoke to gsport about her battle with mental health since retiring from rowing in 2017. The host of the Girls Only Project podcast, who interviews athletes about their careers, challenges and highlights, used the pandemic to come to terms with her struggle.
“During this period, I have actually done a lot of speaking about my career and the struggles I have had with retirement. It has certainly allowed me to do a lot of reflection and because of my retirement struggles I often forget to celebrate what I have achieved and I am really proud of what I have achieved in my sporting career.
“It was a great career and it certainly taught me a lot about myself and has helped me to grow as a person even now that I am not competing anymore. Going forward I realise how important it is for me to continue to share my story of my struggles with mental health as well as retirement, as others are experiencing similar struggles and I want them to know that its ok and they are not alone on their journey.”
Persse’s honesty and openness is mirrored by young athlete, Ela Meiring, who took to Instagram a few months ago, to courageously share her personal struggles with mental health, urging her followers to get help if they are struggling. We shared her story with the gsport community because we were inspired by her fearlessness in addressing mental health. In her post, she said:
“I want everyone to know that depression and self-harm is a real thing and should never be shrugged off. Many young people and adults have lost their lives to suicide, which was unnecessary. My message is that you should get help and not bottle your feelings up. We must all take hands and help one another be better versions of themselves.”
Meiring reflected on troubled teenage years and the impact on her self-confidence.
“Teenage years hit me hard with acne. Most of my friends had clear skin, still do, and I am the one with loads of red bumps on my skin. I tried to not let it get to me, but people asked me what’s wrong with your face, or you’re ugly. I eventually had to take medication, still do, to clear my skin…”
“The biggest improvement is being able to talk about it, without feeling ashamed since it happened in the past and forms part of who I am today.”
eNCA News and Sport Anchor, Nandi Tshabalala, who has been open about her personal struggles with mental health, is an ambassador for the Southern African Depression and Anxiety Group (Sadag). She urges those in need to seek help.
“I began working with Sadag around 2014 or 2015. Mental health has always been a huge part of my life and I felt that I needed to do something not just to keep me sane but also to make people realise that they are not alone. There are a lot of people that can help and there are organisations, particularly Sadag who are available 24/7 to help with whatever their issues are.
“… Sadag does really well in encouraging them to speak out and accept that they need help. I think for a lot of people they have issues asking for help and accepting their condition because they see it as a weakness. But, mental illness is a serious problem and if we can take things like cancer, flu, TB and any other physical illness, there is no reason why we can’t take mental illness seriously.”
Fitness and wellness coach, Juanita Khumalo, advocates for holistic wellness, saying there has to be harmony between our mental, emotional and physical health.
“Our mental and emotional health play a major role in our ability to maintain a good physical health. Mental and emotional distress often shows up as physical symptoms, like insomnia, constipation and lethargy.
“In order to be motivated, disciplined and committed to your physical wellbeing, you need to take care of your mental health. Nourishing your mental health regularly aids with physical health, fosters stronger resilience to stress, improves your mood and outlook, and increases the overall quality of your life.”
Dr Koketjo Tsebe is a sports psychologist, working with leading organisations and teams, including Softball South Africa, shared this on how she helps athletes maintain a positive mindset.
“There are different evidence-based approaches that I adopt to assist the athletes to remain in a positive mindset. Psychology modalities are usually informed by athlete’s overall presentations because of various factors being involved. Some approaches include Mindfulness-Acceptance-Commitment approach which was a method I did in my PhD thesis. Overall, I promote mental health and provide effective support.
Dr Tsebe believes in adopting healthy coping techniques to achieve improved mental health.
“Establish a routine and keep active both physically and mentally. Recognize feelings and thoughts. It is normal to feel disappointed and worried at times. Adopt healthy coping techniques such as mindfulness. Seek professional help if it’s overwhelming beyond your capabilities.”
Photo Caption: The host of the Girls Only Project podcast, international rowing star Lee-Anne Persse has had opportunity to reflect on the struggles she’s had with retirement during COVID: “I often forget to celebrate what I have achieved, and I am really proud of what I have achieved in my sporting career.” Photo: Lee-Anne Persse (Twitter)