Backing unified approach
Wayne Schwass knows as well as anybody about the devastating impact of mental illness.
The former North Melbourne and Sydney Swans star played 282 games of AFL football between 1988 and 2002, and reached the game’s pinnacle in 1996, on the premiership dais with his Kangaroos teammates.
But behind the smiles of elation he presented to adoring fans and teammates, Wayne was fighting an internal battle with depression that took him to the brink.
“I was diagnosed with depression in 1993, but I hid my condition from everybody bar four people - my wife and three clinicians,” he said.
“I played footy for 14 and a half years, and I hid my condition for 10; that took an enormous amount of effort, and I often wish I could have my time again.
“The reason I hid my condition was because of fear – fear of being judged and fear of being perceived as weak.
“I thought that if I lost respect, I would lose relationships, so I sacrificed my health and wellbeing to protect those relationships.”
Now a prominent mental health advocate, Wayne runs a social enterprise called Puka Up, and this year organised a 1433km bike ride aimed at bringing much-needed attention to the issue of suicide.
Wangaratta is included on the list of stop-overs for next year’s Puka Up ride, but in the lead-up to that event in March, Wayne is looking forward to taking part in tomorrow’s Puka Up Wangaratta Community Walk.
Organised by local residents Ross Hill and Tim Briggs, as a means to start the “genuine conversations” promoted by Puka Up in working towards suicide prevention, the 5km walk leaves from the Wangaratta Performing Arts Centre at 9am tomorrow and will wend its way around the streets of Wangaratta before returning to the WPAC.
Wayne will take part in the walk with his wife and three children, before speaking about his journey and the work of Puka Up at the completion of the event.
“Nothing and no one else is more important than your mental health, but stigma is still alive and well in Australia, and that stigma is essentially discrimination,” Wayne said.
“I am aware unfortunately of the impact suicide’s had locally, but that is not limited to Wangaratta; it is impacting communities all across the country.
“It’s tragic, devastating and confronting, and our organisation works to be part of efforts to make a difference to the toll it takes.”
Wayne said he was encouraged by the growing acceptance of AFL players taking time out from football to focus on their mental health, and was hopeful this reflected wider society.
“When I was playing, I wasn’t ready for that, the industry wasn’t ready, and society wasn’t ready,” he said.
“If you had said to me back then that in the space of five weeks, Alex Fasolo, Tom Boyd and Travis Cloke would all be taking time out for mental health reasons, I would have said that couldn’t happen in my lifetime.
“But I’m really encouraged that players have started to realise the importance and value of taking care of their mental health.
“Once upon a time, the clubs would have done whatever they could to disguise that happening; it would have been listed as a hamstring injury.
“Clubs are now starting to make changes around the treatment of mental health, and that takes the pressure off the player and reduces stress; when they don’t have to hide anything they can concentrate on getting well.
“Also, every time a high profile person reveals their battle with mental health, it gives hope to those people battling on a daily basis; speaking openly is such a positive thing.
Wayne said he was excited to join a community prepared to walk as one to tackle the issue of suicide.
“I get great inspiration from individuals and communities who are prepared to come forward and show their support and shine a light on mental health,” he said.
“It’s about starting conversations and letting people know that it’s okay and important to give ourselves permission to talk about suicide.
“The subtlety of this event is wonderful; every time we talk about it, we take a very small step towards addressing it.
“When we talk about mental health and wellbeing, that conversation can change a person’s life, and can sometimes save a person’s life.
“The earlier we can start those conversations, even with our kids, the better.
“I’m a father of three, my youngest son is 11, and every week I spend time talking to him about the ability to express all his emotions, and make a conscious decision to talk about the importance of talking about the way you feel.
“I see a lot of men who have been conditioned not to express their emotions, and that’s got to change so that everybody is able to ask for help and offer help.
“We should approach this not as males or females, but as human beings.
“Mental health conditions can be complex and challenging to talk about, but the number of people affected and impacted by stress is increasing, and the number of people losing their lives to suicide is increasing, so this is giving people permission to start talking to each other.
“We are not trying to put a rocket on the moon, so we can all be part of this conversation in some way and play a role in changing or saving someone’s life.
“If there are people thinking about walking tomorrow but are not sure, I would encourage them to come along.”
* If you or someone you know is experiencing a personal crisis, contact Lifeline on 131 114, or Beyond Blue on 1300 224 636.
Every time a high profile person reveals their battle with mental health, it gives hope to those people battling on a daily basis.
END THE STIGMA: Former AFL star and leading mental health advocate Wayne Schwass will be in town tomorrow to take part in the Wangaratta Puka Up Community Walk, aimed at starting conversations that may curb the local suicide toll.