Although this year’s Movember campaign is drawing to a close, St. Mary’s University RUFC are growing right to the finish line. They are working towards their final target of £750 but look set to surpass it in the final days.
During the month of November moustaches ranging from the magnificent to the meagre are fixtures of offices, homes and commuter trains across the land, tickling their owners behind protective facemasks.
The worldwide Movember campaign is aimed at raising awareness for men’s physical and mental health during November every year.
Donations go towards projects to support men suffering with testicular and prostate cancer and mental health issues.
According to their official website, over 1,250 projects worldwide have been directly funded by Movember since 2003. (Read more about Movember’s work here: https://uk.movember.com/?home)
Breaking down the stigma surrounding men’s mental health is a key aspect of the cause.
The camaraderie and brotherhood found in sport is a key motivator for participation in such an important campaign.
Sports stars are often seen with an upper lip accoutrement during November, using their prominent platforms to participate in the campaign. Examples include England rugby players Jonny May and rising star Freddie Steward.
St. Mary’s Moustaches
According to St. Mary’s RUFC President Charlie Swerling and Vice President Matt O’Connor around 30 of the club’s 45 members are giving the Movember campaign a good go, with mixed results.
At the time of our mid-November interview, the club have raised £578 thanks to their varying standards of moustache, but they have other fundraising plans to increase their takings.
In recent years, their campaign has grown significantly. They have surpassed previous targets already.
Vice-president O’Connor recently lost a friend to cancer and the Movember campaign is a cause close to his heart.
The post-lockdown agenda is clear to president Swerling who said:
“The drive this year is on mental health.”
Personal mental struggles are a well-documented and crucial aspect of our post-Covid existence, and ones that are being taken increasingly seriously.
As authoritative figures of an influential club at a proud sporting university, Swerling and O’Connor are fully aware of their responsibilities. As Swerling puts it: “Everyone has their struggles.” He highlights the club’s commitment to openness and conversation.
“As a club, something we’ve been really big on is letting people know if you are struggling and having the open conversation.”
The club prides itself on creating an environment in which members feel comfortable and safe. The commitment is admirable, particularly in rugby, a sport where both mental and physical hardiness form part of their identity and is a prerequisite for success on the pitch.
An Open Dialogue
Candidness and openness yield results and Swerling says that members feel more inclined to come forward about their mental health.
He was for a time particularly concerned for a member of his team who came to him. He understood the passages and processes to go through, reporting the situation to the welfare team at St Mary’s University.
This mature response is refreshing to hear. Swerling and his welfare officer share the role at the top of the club, leading conversations about mental wellbeing.
Initiatives to encourage members to maintain the open conversation include coffee mornings, to which all members of the club are invited to chat about things away from the rugby field.
The Importance of Community
The community aspect is inescapable at St. Mary’s University. The campus is small and welcoming with a student body to match.
It is a far cry from larger institutions, where one can feel swept up in the daily routine of a huge university. Here there is a genuine sense of community, fostered by a strong sporting identity.
St. Mary’s RUFC is one manifestation of the familial feel and O’Connor says the club has always had a family feel, but now feels that it is even more inclusive than in the past.
The leadership are conscious of changing perceptions around student rugby. They want to build a positive and open club and society. This can be a challenge given rugby’s stereotyping for laddish behaviour and insensitivity.
Also it is a sport that can also sometimes fail to address understand mental struggles in the name of machismo.
A lack of sensitivity towards mental struggles can have disastrous consequences, particularly in men’s circles – three of every four suicides in the UK are male.
The stigma surrounding mental health particularly in men has changed drastically in recent years. The momentum is encouraging, but must be kept up, particularly in times as challenging as our own.
Looking to the Future
The nature of university club leadership is that the position is constantly in transition, the responsibility moving from one member to the next.
Going forward, Swerling advises his eventual successor to set the standard early with mental health conversations.
The president has found the conversations useful for his own education around the issues too. He admits that previously he would not have known the difference between depression and anxiety, but now understands how each condition manifests itself and what it means for the individual.
The drive for inclusivity is key to the club’s direction in the future, and both Swerling and O’Connor agree that the direction of their club matches that of wider society with regard to mental health awareness.
There is still plenty more for the rugby club and wider society to do, but the direction in which we are travelling is an encouraging one.
Men’s mental and physical health used to be a topic that people tended to avoid, a taboo brushed under the carpet by masculine hands and social ignorance. Men had to be strong and stoic, bastions of fortitude. Boys don’t cry.
The world is very different now.
With the help the Movember campaign and shifts in attitudes in recent years, the conversations are far more open and can be more conducive to actualising real change and improve the lives of men around the world.
It is encouraging and inspiring to see moustaches around universities and across the nation, however fuzzy or fantastic. Men’s health is now solidly at the forefront of societal discourse, and momentum suggests that it will stay there.
How can I help?
More information on Movember and the work they do can be found at the following link:
Please consider donating to St Mary’s RUFC’s Movember page: https://uk.movember.com/team/2335669?mc=1&utm_medium=share&utm_source=dynamic&utm_campaign=copy-clipboard&fbclid=IwAR14p7ASaf9ql5W2y9RiS21WdihCJR5NqPd5226Gke77uFV6rOCcKgeQLLg
The Sports Gazette team of writers is encouraging donations to their page too:
You can read more of the Sports Gazette’s rugby content here: https://sportsgazette.co.uk/category/rugby/