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Former Football Star Reconnects To His Indigenous Heritage To Recover From Depression

Joe Williams has a simple message.

30/11/2016 8:35 AM AEDT | Updated 30/11/2016 5:16 PM AEDT
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Meet Joe Williams.

When former athlete and mental health advocate Joe Williams tours the country talking about suicide prevention, he harks back to his indigenous heritage.

"My biggest aid in my own mental health recovery was my connection to traditional Aboriginal culture, so that is what I speak about," the Wiradjuri man and NRL half-back turned professional boxer told The Huffington Post Australia.

"An elder of mine sat me down out in the bush one day and he told me that if I stuck close to our values and lessons, I'd be able to wade through my own demons. Two years later, he's right."

You may know him as that young, charismatic footy player who traipsed the field for Canterbury, Penrith and South Sydney. Or, perhaps you've seen him take out a championship in the boxing ring.

I was a professional athlete for 15 years, and for all of that time, we thought it was frowned upon to have a mental illness.

Joe Williams was and is both of these things. All the while, his toughest test has been accepting and battling depression and bipolar disorder.

"I was a professional athlete for 15 years, and for all of that time, we thought it was frowned upon to have a mental illness," Williams said.

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A young NRL star at the top of his game in 2007.

"Growing up as a country boy, I had always wanted to be an NRL player and I did everything that I could in order to achieve that. But I was living with an inner dialogue that I had noticed from a young age, and it constantly led me to question everything I did or worked towards."

Halfway through his NRL career and at the top of his game, things started to take a turn as Williams turned to alcohol and drugs to mask and self-medicate his growing depression.

After walking away from the field in 2008 and into a boxing gym, his struggles followed him. Williams came face-to-face with suicide ideation that led to a suicide attempt in 2012.

Those voices were continually dragging me down and telling me to end my life. One afternoon, I started to believe it.

"It was a particular time in my life where I was going through a lot. I had gone through a marriage breakdown, I wasn't seeing my kids and I had moved away from Sydney," Williams said. "Those voices were continually dragging me down and telling me to end my life. One afternoon, I started to believe it."

Williams survived his attempt and went through a diagnosis period.

"I thought that I had a problem with drugs and alcohol. But when I took that away, I started to realise what I was actually going through -- and that these were the behaviours I had been showing since I was a kid," Williams said.

Part of his recovery was returning to the boxing ring. "The harder I worked in that ring, the quieter the voices became. It started making me well."

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A reprieve from his "inner demons".

Williams began to workshop 'The Enemy Within', a suicide prevention charity that now sees him touring Australia and overseas speaking with schools, sporting clubs, organisations and remote Indigenous communities.

"Working with these communities and connecting with people was actually my medicine to stay well."

On Indigenous Australians and suicide

"Suicide was not prevalent pre-colonisation. Some drastic things have happened post-colonisation that have lead our people to having the highest suicide rates in the world," Williams said.

And he attributes the drastic figures -- faced particularly by young indigenous men -- to racial oppression.

"It is by far the biggest killer of our people. On a death certificate, it may say death by suicide. Or it may say death by alcohol and drugs. But that doesn't account for the demons of racial backlash felt by our people every single day that have lead up to that suicide."

I speak about everything that our elders told us when this was not a problem.

Williams' connection to his heritage and culture has shaped his approach towards suicide education, prevention and support.

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A powerful aid in his recovery.

"I speak about everything that our elders told us when this was not a problem," he said.

'Love, empathy and care'

These may seem like simple tools -- but that is exactly Williams' point.

"I believe that it's these small life values that we need to build on. They are all things that we have within us already -- we just don't realise it. Or we don't appreciate them for what they are," he said.

And they become vital for those who are baring the brutal force of depression or suicide.

"When you are within its grips, you think that nobody cares for you. You think that no one else goes through that," Williams said.

"Tell them that you love them, because you do. Show them empathy, because you know how exactly how they're feeling after going through it yourself. And care for them, because they feel like nobody does."

On mentoring young athletes

Following years of hiding his illness from the sporting stage, Williams is also a strong advocate for young athletes -- as is his message.

These young athletes are just young people. They are a person before they are an athlete.

"If they are an Aboriginal athlete, they are an Aboriginal person before they are a person, before they are an athlete," Williams said.

And so, he removes them from their pedestal.

"We wrap these young footballers up in cotton wool. So many of them go through their first contract of footy and then they'll go back into the real world and won't know what to do. That's where depression sinks in and suicide happens."

"They are going to be better athletes if their mental health is stable. So we have to treat them like that, and use these tools to make sure their wellness is turned on at all times."

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A powerful advocate, a proud Wiradjuri man and an all round great Aussie bloke.

On mental health checks

And this is a message that Williams continues to live by.

"Every day I keep check. Every single day," he said.

"If you are going through a depressive episode or if you're having a bad day, it's just as important to be able to ask yourself, why am I feeling like this? How can I look back at my own values and use them to turn this around?

"The things that I talk about are those that have literally kept me alive for so long."

If you need help in a crisis, call Lifeline on 13 11 14. For further information about depression contact beyondblue on 1300224636 or talk to your GP, local health professional or someone you trust.

Joe Williams is a finalist for Australia's first Mental Health Prize, an accolade that recognises the contributions of Australians to the promotion of mental health. The winner will be announced on December 7, 2016.

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