...our men aren’t very good at being vulnerable.
Carmen Taplin was formerly the Wellbeing Manager at New Zealand Rugby League (NZRL). Currently based in Australia in a new role with the Gold Coast Titans, she still provides support to athletes and the NZRL crew in Aotearoa through Wellbeing Waka, a project that delivers mental health workshops alongside Real Talk talanoa sessions in rugby league communities. Although these communities are diverse, they are predominantly Māori and Pasifika.
The workshops/talanoa sessions are an opportunity for parents and youth to talk about mental health, and address the stigma associated with it. “I’m sure it’s in every sport, but with our sport, it’s supposed to be a hard, tough game, and our men aren’t very good at being vulnerable,” Carmen says. “We wanted to try and start breaking down some barriers there. The biggest thing for us was to get our people comfortable talking about it.”
A unique aspect of this project is the format. Sessions are held with parents and youth at the same time, but separately, which provides a safe space for both groups to talk more openly.
Social media has a massive impact on young people, something that parents often don’t understand. The rangatahi are asked, ‘Who do you turn to when you’re having a tough time? Do you go to your parents?’ Carmen says, “The majority of kids say they don’t. Which, as a parent, is so hard to hear.” This highlights the need to educate whānau on communication, she says. Carmen was heartened to learn that a significant number of young people said they would approach their league coach for support. “For us, that was a real breakthrough in the sense of our coaches and managers understanding how vital they are,” says Carmen.
Suicides of young men in the rugby league community underline the urgency to normalise conversations around mental health. “We are losing too many of our whānau to not do our best to make a difference in this space.” At the Real Talk sessions, the cultural impacts of suicide are discussed, for example, how sometimes local tikanga might mean that some Māori families can’t mourn their loved one at their marae or bury them in the urupā. “And it's even the burden on the family once their young one has been buried, they're not even allowed to really talk about it anymore,” says Carmen.
There is resistance to attending mental health workshops, as people have a real fear that others will think something is wrong with them if they participate. Initially, numbers weren’t as high as the Wellbeing Waka team had hoped, but the benefits of the in-depth conversations they were able to have with smaller groups became immediately apparent by the overwhelmingly positive feedback they received. Participants were eager to know when they could kōrero like this, safely, again. “We have to keep empowering our people to have these conversations. We need to change the narrative around mental health. We can’t just be a one hit wonder. We can’t just come one day and then leave, and say we’re done. It has to be something that is meaningful and sustainable.”
An online support group was created, under the umbrella of the NZRL, to support those already doing the mahi in rugby league communities round the country. “Every district and club has their own unique set of challenges and they also have their own solutions – there isn’t a one size fits all model.” Carmen is proud to share that 27 Wellbeing Champions around the country are now part of this new network. “I’m excited. This is the next step. They feel so valued.”
League legend Ali Lauiti’iti and Cliff Thompson, a sports chaplain, have led the Real Talk sessions with Carmen, and are able to form a bridge of understanding between parents and their children. Carmen says, “We'd meet with the parents first and they’d say ‘I know I need to listen better, but it's so hard because I just want to protect my kids. They tell me something, and I just want to fix it.’ And then we’ll talk to the kids and they say ‘Our parents never listen. Every time I start to say something they always butt in, or they talk about their past, and say we've got nothing to worry about.’”
Pictured left: Sports Chaplain, Cliff Thompson
Listen to League legend Ali Lauiti’iti talk about Wellbeing Waka and the work they do.