Back­ing uni­fied ap­proach

Wangaratta Chronicle - - Front Page - BY SI­MONE KERWIN sker­win@ne­me­

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.

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