I almost lost my life at a well-established gym recently, when a mentally ill person who was also working out, grabbed me like a piece of paper and threw me heavily at the biceps machine close to us. While puzzled and blank, I shouted for help but the employees had seen what had happened and came to my rescue.
“There seems to be a mental illness issue. We need protection,” said an old man who was standing far at the back, watching.
The staff was split in two - some called their first-aid team which assessed me and checked how badly I was hurt, while others tried to get the person out of the gym to handle the situation, especially because it was chaotic as everyone felt threatened.
I am not mentioning the gender or identity of the person because I don’ t want that person standing in society to hijack this necessary conversation. The Constitution of the Republic of South Africa 1996 (Act No.108 of 1996) openly prohibits unfair discrimination of people with mental or other disabilities. As law-abiding citizens, we need to partake in this conversation, constructively and objectively.
That incident made me wonder how equipped our gyms are when it comes to the issues of mental health illnesses. You can’t divorce the gym and well-being industry from mental health care because many people go to the gym to de-stress, maintain their body weight, and manifest emotional well-being.
The last thing you think of when you go to the gym is being attacked by anyone, because you perceive them to be working on themselves, and we all believe people are mentally invested in their health care. Exercising improves mental health by reducing depression, anxiety, self-esteem and negative mood. Also, exercising is a scientifically proven mood-booster, which alleviates symptoms such as social withdrawal.
Whose role is it to make sure all people who attend the gym are mentally fit to be there, and and no one is harmed by the next person? The gym and well-being industry stakeholders should think of effective measures to handle mental health challenges, and people experiencing mental breakdown at the gym - especially because for as long as your industry involves people, their mental fitness matters - to protect everyone from any violence that can emerge.
The Mental Health Care Act (No 17 of 2002) states that the person and property of a person with mental disorder or mental disabilities may at times require protection, and that members of the public and their properties may similarly require protection from people with mental disorders or mental disabilities. Also, there is a need to promote the provision of mental health-care service in a manner which promotes the maximum mental well-being of users of mental health-care services and communities.
I believe the gym administrators have a role to update and screen the details of their clients on a monthly or quarterly basis. For example, have free mental health fitness tests for your clients. Send questionnaires to your clients to promote transparency and support for your mentally ill customers. This is not to label people, but to bring inclusive solutions that will benefit the growth of your clients and your business.
Although clients don’t have an obligation to disclose their mental health status to anyone, the gym industry still has a role to play. It needs to run mental-health workshops with its clients and teach them about de-stress tolerance and many other techniques to channel stress.
It does happen that a person has signed up with the gym while he/she was in a good mental state, but when life takes a turn, and he/she becomes mentally ill to the point where he/she is physically attacking others, something has to be done by the gym to avoid the danger that may emerge.
Gyms must adapt to the struggles of mental health problems.
Siwaphiwe Myataza-Mzantsi is a media specialist at U-Turn Homeless Ministry and writes in her personal capacity.