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Pacific sports stars’ mental health focus of new study

Pacific sports stars’ mental health focus of new study

New research will examine the factors affecting the mental health and wellbeing of young Pacific male elite athletes.

Mental wellbeing in sports is growing in importance, as are the numbers of young Pacific men pursuing careers in professional sports. Pacific athletes make up more than 40 per cent of the Australian National Rugby League (NRL) competition and 60 per cent of the youth players in Auckland’s local rugby league club competitions. Increasingly, however, young Pacific athletes have been linked to depression and suicide in the media.

University of Auckland student Caleb Marsters has received a Pacific health research PhD scholarship from the Health Research Council of New Zealand (HRC) to look into some of the on and off-field issues affecting the mental health of young Pacific male athletes (16 to 24 years) participating at New Zealand representative level in various sports, including rugby league, rugby union, basketball, boxing, soccer, and mixed martial arts.

“The recent suicides of young Pacific male athletes in rugby league circles in both New Zealand and Australia, and the increasing number of Pacific athletes speaking out about their own battles with depression, suggests that this group are at ‘increased-risk’ of experiencing adverse mental health outcomes and may have culturally distinct factors that impact on their mental wellbeing,” says Mr Marsters.

One of the key parts of Mr Marsters’ study will involve identifying triggers and potential anchors or support for mental health that these athletes use – or would like to access – to combat the pressures of playing at elite levels. The study will capture the perceptions of the athletes as well as coaches, managers, and sports administrators.

“The identification of some of these factors may contribute towards developing coping strategies and help-seeking frameworks to support the mental health and wellbeing of a number of our emerging young Pacific athletes. This is especially important as the number of young Pacific males pursuing careers in professional sports is on the rise,” says Mr Marsters.

This new HRC-funded PhD study will build on Mr Marsters’ thesis for his Master of Public Health on young Pacific male athletes and positive mental health wellbeing, which he says has received strong support from the Pacific community.

“Mothers, fathers, siblings, friends, and extended family members of young Pacific male athletes were all quickly in contact with me to discuss this issue, pass on contact information of potential participants, and show their support for the study and the cause.”

Mr Marsters says key organisations in the Pacific community such as Le Va, the Vodafone Warriors, Auckland Rugby League, Auckland Rugby Union, and the New Zealand Rugby Union also provided great support for his thesis and were keen to meet up to discuss this topic and potential ventures moving forward.

“Most importantly, this network expressed the need for further research in this area and their willingness to be involved and provide support for future research projects on this topic. Now with this HRC funding, I look forward to addressing this need and building upon the strong network that I’ve established,” says Mr Marsters.

HRC Chief Executive Professor Kath McPherson says the HRC is proud to support the development of Mr Marsters’ health research career in a relatively unexplored area of high need.

“Caleb’s research will help advance positive health and wellbeing outcomes for young Pacific men and their families both on – and more importantly – off the field. It will also significantly contribute to the areas of sports psychology, health management, and youth, mental and men’s health,” says Professor McPherson.

Mr Marsters’ scholarship is one of 22 Pacific career development awards in the HRC’s latest funding round. See below for the full list of Pacific career development award recipients or to read lay summaries of the research projects, go to and filter for ‘Pacific Health Research,’ and ‘2017’.


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