If you had have asked former sporting AFL legend and Sydney Swans star Wayne Schwass 12 years ago if he would one day be a spokesman for mental health, and the CEO of suicide prevention organisation PukaUp, he would have said, “No chance”.
That could be because Wayne himself was secretly battling with his own crippling depression.
But now, years on after suffering in silence, the Melbourne based father of three, is on a mission to help others take a different approach to their health, and he’s doing everything he can to change the way Australian’s view mental wellbeing in the process. Over to you Wayne.
In Australia right now, there’s over three million people who are either dealing with depression or anxiety.
Tragically we lose eight people to suicide every day, and there’s over 65,000 people who have attempted to make the same decision through the course of the year, so this is a big issue.
I was diagnosed with depression on the 9th of August 1993.
I remember it vividly, but regrettably it took 12 years after I was diagnosed to open up about my struggles and finally ask for help. I hid my condition from family and friends – that’s a regret. There’s nothing I can do about that, except to help others to not make the same mistake.
The reality is, when I look back, I realise I had no tools in my tool box.
The only two tools that I had available to me were alcohol and drugs, and unfortunately, I self-medicated for a long period of time.
On the field, it was different. I had a tool box full of information, education, training and knowledge. I had a lot of learned lessons and a lot of confidence.
So, the more stressful that environment was, the more I felt at home because I was trained to be able to cope with the stress of the game.
But when it came to stress in life, I didn’t have a toolbox that had that same level of skills.
Looking back, maybe my family suspected something wasn’t right. But for 12-and-a-half years I chose not to tell anyone except for my wife, two of my club doctors and eventually a psychiatrist.
I consciously chose not to tell anybody, including my father, my family, my best friend and my team mates, because I lived in fear every day of losing the things that were important to me, which were my relationships, opportunities, family, friends and most importantly, respect.
So, I sacrificed my health in order to protect those things because I thought if the truth came out I would lose everything.
The repercussions of that?
I was spiritually lost and I was emotionally bankrupt. I was self-medicating to the point of being an alcoholic. My relationships were strained. I was broken.
More than anything though, I resented the fact that I had a mental health condition. I didn’t want to accept it. I was living in denial.
Then I had a lightbulb moment. I was in the middle of training with the Sydney Swans and it hit me. I had wasted years of my life suffering in silence. And in that moment a powerful decision was made.
I walked off the training track, and I asked for help for the very first time.
To follow was four-and-a-half-years of working with an incredible psychiatrist where I learnt how to understand depression, anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorders and how they were impacting my life.
Slowly and sometimes painfully, I was able to start rebuilding my life.
From that point onwards, I have been dedicated to not only my mental health, but also the mental health of others, so here’s what you should know.
APPROACHING MENTAL HEALTH
We all go through different stages and challenges in life. Sadness along with happiness, and everything else in between is normal. But I would suggest prolonged sadness that doesn’t move on or change, could be an indicator you may be experiencing a mental health condition.
If you approached your emotional health in the same way you did your physical health, you would find that after two weeks of having a sore head, or an upset stomach or any other physical ailment, you would probably tell someone about it. You would likely tell your partner or a family member or a friend, and eventually if it continued, you would probably go and see your doctor.
That’s exactly the same strategy we need to apply to our emotional health.
MENTAL HEALTH CONDITIONS DON’T DISCRIMINATE
There’s no one specific reason why people get depressed. It could be as a result of change, or the end of a relationship. A family member might pass away, or it could be to do with employment or financial issues.
There’s a whole host of different risk factors that could contribute to the decline of our mental health, or there could be no specific factors at all.
Mental health conditions can affect anyone at any point in their life.
THE ISSUE OF MASCULINITY
This is my own personal view and I want to pre-tell it by saying I don’t have a tertiary education, I don’t have a university degree behind me but I am an expert in my life. I have spoken about mental health all over the country for the past 12 years, and I get messages daily from men that don’t know what to do.
The issue of masculinity in my opinion is fundamentally flawed.
Let me put it this way – there’s enough research that supports the argument that boys and girls from the moment they’re born up until the ages of about 8, 9 and 10, are just as emotionally connected and emotionally expressive as each other. But then something fundamentally changes.
What I believe is that once young boys reach these ages, they are molded based on the expectations that others place on them, the expectations that society expects from them, and the expectations they put on themselves to be a male in Australia.
You need to be tough, resilient, loyal, hard working, a provider, a protector and extremely stoic.
Now these are all valuable characteristics, and they are valuable because they make up part of who we are, and they are important traits for all men.
But very rarely do I hear men describe themselves as caring, compassionate, loving, empathetic, emotional or vulnerable.
This is not a sexist conversation but women are generally better at communicating.
Most women naturally feel more comfortable talking about their own issues and emotions.
Boys might foolishly and ignorantly complain that women talk too much but the value of communication is fundamental to our ability to overcome stress and emotional challenges.
Women are good at it, men are not so good at it, and I firmly believe that’s due to conditioning.
Men just aren’t as comfortable talking about their stress, concerns, relationship issues, and work or money problems.
And if men show emotion or are visibly upset, they’re exposed and probably fear being labelled weak or soft.
That is a horrible message to send any male of any age. We need to create an environment where our men can feel safe, and emotionally connected and intelligent. Where they have the ability to ask for help and seek out support when they need it.
Men express feelings and emotions that they have either been conditioned to or have been told are acceptable – and usually those feelings look like anger, frustration, flying off the handle or going into fits of rage.
I love my dad dearly but I’ve only ever seen him cry once and that was when his mum, my grandmother, passed away. So, I grew up as a young man adopting this mentality that ‘real men’, whatever that means, don’t cry. And when they do cry, they’re weak. And that attitude was magnified exponentially playing in a male dominated sport.
HARNESSING THE LESSON
When I look back at some of my darkest days, I now see depression as my greatest teacher.
Now, there’s no doubt that it’s an incredibly difficult challenge to go through, and I have great empathy for people who are dealing with any mental health condition – it takes an enormous amount of effort, courage, resilience and patience to fight the battle every single day but my advice is this, if you accept the fact that your health is your responsibility, if you’re prepared to bring those people closest to you into the conversation, and share how you’re feeling – if you’re prepared to reach out and ask for help and invest the time into getting healthy and well again, mental health is a difficult journey of self-discovery.
If you’re able to embrace it, you will be a better person for it.
I say that from my own personal experience. I am a much better person now having gone through what I’ve gone through, because I understand who I really am outside of who I thought I was.
I’m more than a football player – I’m a father, I’m a husband, I’m a business owner, I am a whole host of different things.
I now understand the stresses that cause me challenges. I recognise that my emotional health and mental health is just as, if not more important than my physical health, they are not mutually exclusive.
But the best part is that facing my challenges head on has led me to realise that I don’t have to worry about whether people approve of me.
I live an authentic and genuine life based on who I am and what I believe in, and that’s empowering.
UNDERSTANDING THE SIGNS
We need to invest the time to understand at a really basic level, what the signs and symptoms of mental health are.
We need to do this for two reasons.
One: You will have a much better idea yourself if you’re not feeling well. You might be able to identify something in yourself that would suggest there could be an issue and that it might be a good idea to talk to someone.
Two: At some stage in our life journey, if we haven’t already, we will at some point in our future come into contact with someone who we love and care about that is dealing with a mental health issue, so we have a wonderful opportunity to be able to support that person in a positive and helpful way.
If somebody’s behaviour changes – they may show up as agitated, maybe confrontational or they might start doing things out of the ordinary, like turning up to work late – maybe they’re isolating themselves, or not returning phone calls or text messages. Maybe they are usually quite social but lately they’re withdrawn, pulling out of social gatherings…
Anything of that nature may indicate that there could be something wrong.
And if you do notice this type of behaviour, the challenge for most people is, what do I say or do?
WHAT CAN WE DO TO HELP?
The best bit of advice that I could give to anybody that may be worried about someone who could be dealing with a mental health condition, or are showing early signs of challenges, is to show that person you care by offering them support.
Take them for a coffee. Show them that you are prepared to listen and that you won’t judge them because chances are they are judging themselves incredibly harshly.
Tragically in Australia, we are losing eight Australians to suicide everyday so my view is, I would rather ask the hard question of, “Are you okay? Is everything alright?”
Or, “I’ve noticed that something doesn’t seem right and I will support you no matter what, and if you would like to talk to anybody I want you to know that I’m here for you”.
My mission now is to help as many people as possible dealing with mental health conditions, which is why I created PukaUp. It’s a new social enterprise focused on tackling suicide by creating environments for every person to have authentic and genuine conversations about mental health and emotional well-being.
It’s fitting because the definition of Puka is derived from a Hindi word which means authentic and genuine.
We are committed to normalising the mental health conversation much earlier in people’s lives.
We want to give people the environment and the conversations to feel empowered with other like-minded people that support them, respect them, encourage them and do not judge them for talking openly and honestly about challenges that they may be going through.
To find out how you can help or be helped head to is www.pukaup.com www.facebook.com/pukaup @pukaup
Anyone who is living with a mental health condition, I want you to know, you are doing an amazingly good job given difficult circumstances. I want you to know you’re not alone.
I want you to find the courage to ask for help. I want you to take that first important step, because there is some truly incredible help available.
For those supporting loved ones, I understand that it can be hard but I encourage you to never give up on the person you care for, because they need your support and your support is going to be critical on their road to recovery.