Supporting students with mental illness

Paper presented by Moranguinho at Enca Muzenza in Curitiba 2019

Read in Portugues

This presentation is based on my experiences as a psychologist, a capoeirista and someone with anxiety and depression. It will describe the symptoms of some common mental illnesses, identify some reasons that these symptoms may make it harder for students to participate in capoeira, and suggest some ways that teachers can make it easier.

Many elements of capoeira have been shown to be beneficial for mental health. Exercise has been show to support mental health  as has music  and friendship and a sense of community.

However there are things that are harder for those with mental illnesses, and these things can make it challenging for them to participate in capoeira. For teachers, understanding these barriers and how to manage them can be helpful in supporting students with mental illness.

The worldwide prevalence of mental illnesses are estimated at 29%, If you teach capoeira it is highly likely people with mental illnesses will attend your classes at some point.

Mental illnesses have a range of symptoms and everyone experiences them differently. however there are some common symptoms. These include tiredness,  impaired concentration, reduced interest, and slowing of thought. 

Many people assume that mental illness symptoms are only in the mind, but they can be physical as well, including muscle aches and pains, and slowing of physical movement. This combination of symptoms make it difficult to do any activity, but especially one with a combination of many complex elements, movement, music, and social interactions, like capoeira.

Having a mental illness can be very tiring, even for those who are managing their mental illness well. They may struggle to believe they will improve and get frustrated when they make mistakes, and be very sensitive to criticism. They may also find it hard to balance capoeira with their other commitments. They may lack motivation, and struggle to train between classes even when they do come to class.

In some ways this is the same as for all students, but students with mental illnesses are likely to struggle more in these areas, most of the time.


The two most common mental illnesses are anxiety and depression. Anxiety described simply  is excessive worry about a variety of topics, that interferes with daily life. Depression is low mood and loss of interest, along with slow thoughts and fatigue that interferes with day -to day life. I have both. This means that my head is often filled with strange unncessary worries and I don’t have the energy to do anything.

It can be hard to understand for people who haven’t experienced it. Understanding it is the best way to be able to support people so I will use analogies to explain my experience.

Most capoeiristas have trained with weights on their ankles to improve their kicks. For me depression is a bit like having invisible weights on my ankles arms and shoulders all the time. Sometimes I almost forget they are there, but when I’m well it’s like they are removed and I feel so much lighter. The symptoms often come on slowly, like someone is adding a little bit of weight each day. sometimes I don’t realise how much I’ve been weighed down, until someone points it out.

For me anxiety is a tangle of worried thoughts in my head. I struggle to block them out. It’s a bit like competing in the mundial, but instead of concentrating on the game and the rythym, you get constantly distracted by the noise of the crowd, and wondering if you left the stove on.

There are also many other mental illnesses. I don’t have time to talk about them all, but my suggestions should be helpful as a starting point for most students.

There are some specific elements of capoeira that can make it more challenging for those with mental illnesses. There are a lot of conventions that are not written down anywhere. it can be hard to follow the unwritten rules of capoeira when you are not familiar with them. This is especially difficult for a person with anxiety who may find the thought of making a mistake very stressful.

While these barriers exist, there are many things capoeira teachers can do to help students with mental illnesses to participate in their classes and access the many benefits of capoeira.

As I described before Students with mental illnesses are likely to have trouble focusing. The tiredness and slowed thinking they experience can make learning hard. It is important to, explain things clearly, and give opportunities to ask questions.  students may need things explained or demonstrated several times .

Feeling safe it important to support people with mental illness to participate in capoeira, This doesn’t mean safety from being attacked it means emotional safety. This includes a predictable environment, permission and space to ask questions, explanations of unwritten conventions, so students know what is expected of them. It also means being clear it is ok to make mistakes. Reassure students that mistakes are part of learning.

Try to encourage students without putting too much pressure on them. They may be more upset by mistakes than most other students.

This can be difficult as every student is different and you want to push all of your students. But too much criticism can drive these students away

acknowledge student’s achievements as well as correcting their mistakes . 

Remember that some mental illnesses have some physical symptoms like muscle soreness, and slowness of movement. These can vary with time, so students may be able to do some things one week, but not the next.

It really helped me to be encouraged and supported by other capoeira students. I have also seen this help other students. This can include helping them with a technique they find difficult before or after class, explaining how the class works, or acknowledging it takes time to get things right. this happens naturally in most classes, but students with mental illnesses may be less comfortable asking for help, so ask experienced students to reach out. Encourage your more experienced students to support newer students, especially those who are struggling.

Capoeira can help improve mental health but it is important to accept that capoeira on its own may not be enough. There is some negativity to medication and therapy, but these can be very helpful for people and support them to engage with other activities such as capoeira. There are some memes on the internet that people don’t need medication if they have capoeira.  This may be true for some but not all. Encouraging students to have appropriate engagement with health professionals is important to support their mental health and their long term enjoyment of capoeira.

Sometimes students will not realised they are having these issues. It can be a bit like wearing sunglasses all the time, and not knowing you are not wearing them until you take them off. Sometimes you will be able to see your students strengths better than they can. Try to help them to see what they do well. 

The more severe the mental illness the more the student is likely to struggle. When working as a psychologist I found that encouraging small changes was helpful. For someone who hasn’t left the house for weeks, it might just be walking out of the front door. For a student who is struggling to engage with classes, it might just be joining in the warm-up, then watching the rest of class. Once they are comfortable with this you can encourage them to join more of the class. Talk with the student about what would be helpful and how you can work with the other people supporting them.

It can be very frustrating to try and train when I can’t concentrate. Or when my body isn’t working properly because of the problems in my brain. This can then make me feel worse, which then makes it even harder to train. This cycle can be hard to break but a good teacher, along with appropriate medical support can make a bid difference.

I’ve only been teaching capoeira for a little while. So far I’ve found these suggestions have helped my students. Letting students know that I struggled like them at the beginning has also helped.

Considerações Finais

Training capoeira with the right support can be very positive for mental health. It is why I am able to stand here and talk to you today. The things that were most helpful for me when I was struggling was knowing I was around people who cared. Also who encouraged me but accepted my limits. They were patient, and took the time to explain things. they understood when I had bad days and couldn’t do things I could on good days.

This allowed me to continue when I felt like giving up.  capoeira has helped me to increase my confidence and become stronger both physically and mentally.

This is all general advice. There isn’t time to go into details of every mental illness. But try to remember how the symptoms I’ve talked about  can affect people both physically and mentally. If in doubt, have a conversation with your student, ideally in private. As what is going on and how you can support them If a student tells you they have a mental illness, ask them about what they struggle with, and what has helped before. Use the same teaching skills that you use with students who have physical difficulties or injuries.

People with mental illnesses present in a variety of different ways, but patience and clear communication along with an understanding of their limits will go a long way in helping them participate and enjoy capoeira and improve their mental health. The right support from teachers can help students overcome the barriers of their mental illness and thrive in capoeira.

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