Namibia: 'Mental Health Issues Silently Killing Athletes'... As Sport Experts Zoom in

22 April 2021

Emotional distress and social pressure that comes with hitting the limelight too early in your career can have far-reaching consequences for athletes and can many a time lead to mental health challenges.

Not only in Namibia, but young and old athletes worldwide are struggling with mental health issues such as depression, anxiety and mood disorders among others, which emanates from the pressure of either hitting the limelight too early or when their careers start dwindling.

It is an open secret that athletes feature prominently on the list of professionals who get little to no guidance in the areas of financial literacy, social discipline, emotional awareness and planning for their lives once their careers are over.

For the young athletes, they too are left astray with no one to advise or guide them when money and fame come too early as their careers are taking off.

This week, Popular Democratic Movement (PDM) Member of Parliament, Martin Johannes, also touched on the issue of mental health awareness among local athletes, saying the time is ripe for the sport ministry and sports federations to start formulating policies and programmes that will ensure athletes are taken care of in that area.

Johannes was reacting to sport minister Agnes Tjongarero, who was briefing the National Assembly on the various achievements and inroads the local sporting fraternity has made over the last couple of months.

In her speech, Tjongarero expressed satisfaction with the performance of the country's young athletes and also how the country has generally performed at continental and international competitions.

While he took time to congratulate the country's athletes for their continued great performance in various spheres, Johannes reminded Tjongarero about the importance of paying close attention to the mental health of the country's athletes, especially the young ones.

The PDM parliamentarian cautioned that winning and shining at big competitions comes with various challenges, and mental health issues are many a time at the forefront of destabilising athletes' careers.

"I am quite excited about the statement the minister of sport has just shared with us, coming from the leadership of Namibia School Sport Union (NSSU) and having led a lot of delegations abroad that successfully came home victorious, and also having now been watching Christine Mboma and Beatrice Masilingi grow through school sports, it would be prudent for me to say we should look at it [mental health] with a great eye. Perhaps the sport ministry should consider giving psychological support to our athletes. When they get into the limelight, a lot of bad things face them and we are aware of what happened to one of our athletes. Because the more they get known, the more they are faced with challenges," said a concerned Johannes.

Also touching on the issue yesterday was athletics coach Henk Botha, who mentors sprint sensations Masilingi and Mboma, said the issue of mental health among athletes is serious and should get the attention it deserves as it silently affects many of the country's athletes.

Botha added that it is of vital importance to ensure that firsthand solutions and policies are in place to help athletes get education and mental training on the various negatives and positives that come with being in the limelight.

"I have noticed that mental health issues have become a challenge to our communities and country at large. Fortunately, I am doing something similar to that with the NNOC to try and help athletes. We are discussing ways of educating athletes on how to properly conduct themselves when they reach greater heights to avoid falling off or losing focus. I think it's a great idea to have something in place on the ministry's side. Holding constant talks with athletes on that topic will be helpful. I strongly believe it's something that should thoroughly be looked at," he said.

Veteran football gaffer Woody Jacobs, who holds a certificate in sports management from South Africa's Nelson Mandela University, also added his voice to the issue, saying it is high time sport federations start giving athletes the education they need on social and emotional challenges.

"Mental health for athletes has become a challenge and more athletes with great potential are falling on the side due to those challenges. I believe there should be a programme that monitors athletes who reach greater heights in sport, especially the young ones. Federations should make it their business to educate athletes on issues of anxiety, financial literacy and depression. It's important," Jacobs said.

NSSU national coordinator, Solly Duiker, said: "Increasing funding should be the first step in ensuring we address this issue on the ground. Where there are elite athletes, we should ensure they go to good schools, that they are in great environments and receive proper training on all aspects of life. Most of these things are neglected, we have coaches that are not trained on how to deal with those shortcomings, so it will ever be challenging."

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