The universal downer: When COVID shuts down footy

This opinion piece was originally published in The Sunday Herald Sun on October 18, 2020

It's been a rough year for teenagers and footy in Victoria. Tens of thousands of junior Aussie rules players have been sidelined due to COVID-19.  

In normal times, it’s the only thing that will coax some teens from their bedrooms. Playing sport provides meaning, a sense of belonging, an outlet for difficult emotions.

That's why the great stand-still has been bad news for teenagers’ mental health – particularly in Melbourne. No more footy means no more laughs, no more escape from troubling thoughts.  

Last month, the State Government revealed a 33 per cent increase in young people presenting to emergency departments because of intentional self-harm. Both State and Federal governments have increased funding for mental health services and suicide prevention.  

This is important progress. But we should also look beyond our borders and address teenagers' mental health in the world's most difficult places - where we fail them. 

I remember Ahmad and his mates in Zaatari - a large refugee camp 10 km south of the Syrian border. His enthusiasm for soccer was tremendous. He played barefoot, wearing a Barcelona jersey, cutting through the defence just like his idol Lionel Messi.  

He said one day he’d play for his homeland - Syria. Despite fleeing the war, losing one of his sisters and everything he held dear, he still loved his country.  

Thirty million children like Ahmad around the world have been through war and forced displacement. They've suffered enormous upheaval and don't know what the future holds.  

Soccer at an NGO-run play space and support from mental health workers that comes with it, keeps them going. But not enough help is available, and the pandemic has made things worse.

How will Ahmad find the energy to cope with the stress of COVID? The same shutdowns that affect our teenagers disrupt life in the world’s grimmest places. Even the small joys disappear.

Poor mental health scars children well into adulthood, costing the world economy AU$3.5 trillion a year. It is not in our interest to leave refugee children grappling with their emotions alone.

Australia should make mental health relief a greater priority in our global response to the pandemic. We can give more to humanitarian crises and help distressed children get back on their feet. Our new aid strategy, Partnerships for Recovery, is a good place to start.

Teens like Ahmad have escaped war – they deserve peace of mind as well. 

Carsten Bockemuehl is the Senior Policy Advisor for Children in Conflict at World Vision Australia. He has worked to protect children from violence and hardship in Syria, West Africa, Papua New Guinea and at the Bangladesh-Myanmar border. 

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