Sport for mental health in Africa


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

Sport-based interventions can be used as effective means to promote mental health. The Mental Health Federation of South Africa (SAFMH) and Waves for change have teamed up to share their learnings on how sport (specifically 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 advocates for all people in South Africa to have access to the quality mental health care they need. We work with 17 affiliated community organizations that provide direct services and support to mental health care users across the country, including prevention and promotion interventions. We operate a Mental Health Helpline, through which we provide information and refer people in need to mental health service providers and other services, and we also act as a resources on all things mental health.

Waves for Change is an evidence-based, youth-friendly preventive mental health intervention. based on a youth-led project Doctoral study about what children think is important for them to experience positive well-being. Waves for Change offers surf therapy to young people aged 9-16 at 5 beach sites in the Western and Eastern Cape provinces of South Africa.

The program works with children who have been exposed to toxic stress as good as neurodiverse children living in disadvantaged communities, to help them gain self-control and coping tools to deal with stressful events in their communities. Waves for Change has over 2,000 participants who attend weekly beach sessions each year and work closely with schools and other community partners.

What is mental health?

  • We all have sanity, just as we all have physical health. Your mental health should be taken care of, just like you take care of your physical health
  • Mental health is when you feel good, can cope with the normal stresses of life, work productively and contribute to your community
  • Mental health is NOT a mental health issue
  • A mental health problem is clinically diagnosed by a mental health professional, such as a clinical psychologist, clinical social worker, or psychiatrist
  • Anyone can have a mental health problem. In 2017, 10.7% of people worldwide were living with a mental health disorder (792 million people)
  • There’s nothing shameful about having a mental health issuejust as there is nothing shameful in having high blood pressure, diabetes or cancer

How can surfing as a sport promote mental health?

People expect a lot from the men in our community. They say things like “men don’t cry”. Since I’ve been at W4C, I’ve learned things because they gave me many tools. I know if I’m stressed now, I know how to calm myself down by doing meditation and taking 5. I share that with other boys.”

Luxolo PoncoWaves for Change youth mentor and former program

Physical activity, especially challenging individual activities that can be done in groups, such as surfing, is effective catalysts for mental health prevention and intervention novelties. These activities require concentration and encourage flow states, which in turn allows participants to rest from negative thoughts and emotions.

Surfing (and sport) offers opportunities to create social bonds and improve the management of emotions if combined with evidence-based activities. The provision of physical and emotional support secure space in areas where mental health services and social support structures are lacking has proven to be the key to community mental innovation.

By integrating service delivery into a physical activity context, stigma mental health related discussions are avoided. Participants who participate in a sport can benefit from advantages such as feel a sense of belonging and develop self-esteem and resilience. They can also learn skills to maintain their mental health, how to identify when they have mental health issues and what steps they need to take to deal with them.

What should be done at the national level?

Based on extensive research, the World Health Organization (WHO) has created a diagram explaining 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 based in the community form the base of the pyramid. These are relatively inexpensive and should be readily available. An example of such interventions would be those that combine sport with evidence-based therapeutic practices (eg. cognitive behavioral therapy or behavioral activation) to promote mental health.

In a country like South Africa, where conversations about mental health are still stigmatized and Western therapeutic models are considered taboo and, at times, culturally inappropriate, sports therapy can be easily adapted to communities with less resistance. or in which individuals feel a sense of exclusion. of the greater community.

These sport-based health promotion interventions often do not require specialized mental health professionals, but still provide effective and cost-effective mental health support. By the use of task sharing – where lay health workers (eg lay counselors and peer mentors) are trained to provide psychosocial interventions – we can increase access to mental health care nationwide. This is particularly important in countries like South Africa where there are simply not enough specialized human resources for mental health care in the country. In 2019, only three of nine provinces have child psychiatrists working in the public sector.

Unfortunately, in South Africa, the triangle is reversed. Lean 5% funding dedicated to mental health from the public health budget, 86% is devoted to hospital 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. This is what sport-based health promotion interventions do. We need more of these interventions, especially for young people, since the mental health problems experienced during this critical development period can create immediate and long-term adverse effects on functioning, development, and well-being, including poorer social functioning, increased risk of unemployment, impaired educational outcomes, and increased risk of self-harm and suicide.

In resource-constrained settings like South Africa, there is a need to establish innovative, youth-friendly and accessible community-based services that speak to and are informed by young people and can complement any established hospital care model for care. of young people’s mental health, of which there is not much.

This would allow us to treat many mental health issues before they turn into mental disorders. This is not only advantageous for the individual, but also less burdensome for our health system and on the economy.

Why invest in sport-based mental health promotion interventions?

Sports-based health promotion interventions have been found to improve mood, increase self-esteem and reduce the risk to develop other non-communicable diseases such as diabetes and obesity, including and among young people.

Interventions that use sport have proven appropriated by the participants. In a systematic review, researchers found that participants in several studies reported positive experiences with sports-based health promotion interventions, suggesting that young people enjoy participating in sports while learning about sports practices. essential health.

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

About SAFMH and Waves for Change

Waves for Change operates its youth-friendly mental health service from 5 beach sites 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 under-resourced. To find out more about their work, you can contact them at: [email protected]

SAFMH offers an information desk for anyone with questions about accessing mental health services. We are also entering winter, a time when fewer people are likely to engage in physical activity to maintain their mental well-being. We urge you to take care of yourself during this time. One of these ways is to connect you with resources, such as a self-care plan on how you will prioritize behaviors that are good for you or community mental health organizations available in your area. region.


Shayni Geffen is a public mental health advocate, researcher, and practitioner with over 6 years of experience supporting community organizations in low-resource settings to improve the mental wellbeing of the populations they serve. . Currently, Shayni is the Advocacy and Awareness Project Manager at The South African Mental Health Federation.

Aviwe Funani is Policy and Advocacy Manager for an innovative South African mental health organization, Waves for Change. Aviwe is a member of the Global Shapers Community, an initiative of the World Economic Forum and a past member of the Youth Advisory Council Member for Orygen Global, a global organization that helps countries and communities around the world implement programs and supports that meet mental needs. local youth health needs


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