2020 - 21 Athletes
The AIS has partnered with Lifeline Australia to provide opportunities for current and former elite athletes to tell their own personal story/journey by raising awareness of mental health issues, suicide prevention and encouraging people to seek help if needed.
Following an expression of interest process, these athletes were selected as Lifeline Community Custodians. They are a passionate group of athletes, keen to share their stories and give back to their community.
Trigger warning: Some athletes' biographies contain mention of suicide, drug use and other themes some readers may find distressing.
Alexandra Viney - Rowing - Para
On December 14th, 2010, the night before my year 12 graduation, I was dragged unconscious from the upside down wreckage of a high-speed car accident caused by a drunk driver.
The surgeons told my family that they had managed to save my left arm but I would be left with lasting impairments to my elbow, forearm and hand. What the surgeons couldn't save, however, was my mental health from the trauma. I was 18.
The next six years of my life were consumed by Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), anxiety and depression and on two separate occasions I attempted to take my own life. I was desperately struggling at a time when talking about your mental health was considered a weakness and even labelled attention-seeking. I had lost my identity; I was self-destructive, I lost friendships and withdrew from social situations.
By 2018 I had learnt to manage my PTSD and anxiety and I was enjoying life but something was missing. I fell in love with AFLW and immersed myself as a coach, manager, strength and conditioning coach and trainer. I wanted these girls to have every opportunity to succeed in their sport that I had always wanted.
Then, one cold game day in May, there was a passing comment that changed everything: “Surely you could be a para athlete.”
In November 2018 I sat in a rowing boat for the first time in eight years.
If speaking out about my experiences can help to break the cycle for someone else, then everything I have been through is worth it. I hope to support the AIS and Lifeline to break down communication barriers and reduce the stigma around mental health.
Amanda Bateman - Rowing
When I was in Year Nine at high school, three people in my friendship group killed themselves within a week of each other.
That was back in 2011. There was no well being help provided by the school. No specialised counselling. Through that whole time, no-one spoke about it. Instead of being addressed, it was just swept under the rug.
That’s something that has definitely improved in recent years, but I’m still really focused on raising awareness and starting the conversation at an earlier age.
There still is a stigma around mental health. Ideally we can eradicate that but, if not, at least open things up. Talk about them. Make people feel more comfortable about what they’re going through opening up the conversation and encouraging individuals to speak.
Young men are among the most at risk, with male suicides in Australia occurring at a rate three times greater than that for females. Sadly, one of my friends who died was a 15-year-old young man.
It’s great to be part of the AIS/Lifeline Community Custodians program. Through sport, as we represent our country and wear the green and gold, many of us are idolised by the community, so why not use that to benefit others?
Hopefully people get educated so that the tragedy of what we experienced at high school doesn’t happen again.
Amber Merritt - Basketball - Para
I didn’t make the phone call I should have made last year. I sat in my room and everything became too much.
I’m a full-time athlete, which is stressful in itself, and I was working a full-time job. I was studying and I was volunteering so there was very little time for me, and I was also going through some breakdowns in my personal life.
So it was a whole mountain of things.
Instead of making the phone call, I just kind of sat in my own darkness and unfortunately ended up being hospitalised. But we learn from these things and I want to push the message that you don’t have to feel that way.
The Lifeline organisation has always been close to my heart, but especially in the past year or two. One of the things that I really acknowledged within myself was how alone I felt.
For so many in our community it’s really tough right now with COVID-19, too. Not just the uncertainty, but especially for people who have lost their jobs, who have families that they can’t see, or family and friends who are ill, it’s really, really challenging.
So it’s a scary time and organisations like Lifeline are so important. I want to help spread the word that it’s OK to feel this way and there’s people you can reach out to who want to listen.
Belle Brockhoff – Snowboard-Cross
I suffered depression during my later teen years and a bit of anxiety as well. Over time, I’ve just worked my way through it, and learned to control emotions that can often be so destructive. Snowboarding has played a big part in that.
I also experienced mental and physical bullying when I was a lot younger, which probably planted the seed a little bit when I was trying to figure out my own identity.
We moved houses quite a bit, so I went to seven different schools, and being the new girl all the time also affected that - trying to find friends, then leaving, then trying to find a new friendship group again.
I was constantly travelling as well, so didn’t have time to have good relationships with my mates until after school. As time went on, I just found myself going into more of a hole, but snowboarding gave me a lot of peace, which is why I kept doing it, and just because I love it as well.
I’m lucky to have a really supportive family and friends and, by sharing my story, I hope people feel less like they have to hold everything in, keep a secret, or feel ashamed. They need to know that there are lots of helpful resources out there, and lots of athletes and other people who are going through similar things.
Caitlin Thwaites - Netball
The opportunity to work with Lifeline was a no-brainer for me. We know that athletes are even more likely than the normal population to experience mental health issues.
I’m really passionate about this space and reducing stigma and being able to get out and talk about mental health and everything that comes along with that. It’s all part and parcel of me and my journey along the way.
Outside of netball I’m back studying for my psychology degree and wanting to move into that wellbeing space. So, with Lifeline, a whole lot of things lined-up in terms of wanting to give back to the community, the mental health side of things, and assisting with my career moving forward.
I feel very privileged to be amongst those who have been chosen.
My official diagnosis is clinical depression and anxiety. So I’ve dealt with that over my sporting career - and throughout my life, as well.
Initially it was a pretty hard battle, but I’ve learnt to cope, and I feel like I’m in a much better place to be able to limit the severity of those things affecting me now.
I want to utilise the platform that I’ve been given through sport to assist people by sharing my story, but also, as a society, for us to normalise these types of things as well.
Catriona Bisset - Athletics
Given my experiences with mental ill-health, I’m passionate about being a role model and reducing shame and stigma on the topic. I want to have open and meaningful conversations so that my public vulnerability can help others be privately vulnerable.
I had an eating disorder for a long time. I also experienced depression and anxiety, and at my worst point, suicidal ideation and behaviours. Being a young girl, and a runner, some of that was related to being in a sport where leanness is highly sought after and mental health is not openly discussed. There’s a lot of misinformation around how runners’ bodies should look. I want to help dispel myths around what health and nutrition looks like.
I’m 26 now, and last year was my breakout season in athletics, although it hasn't been a simple fairy tale of 'overcoming adversity'. In many ways, the process of seeking help has directly helped my career. I’ve built a strong support team and I’ve developed great self-awareness about my needs.
I want my story to demonstrate that mental ill-health doesn't define you. You can achieve incredible things. At the end of the day my experiences are an everyday part of life, simply adding layers to my story and athletic legacy.
Dane Bird-Smith - Athletics
I’d never put a name to it or told anyone, but I was depressed. I felt anxieties and negativity growing over several years until it reached a critical point in 2017. Out training alone one night, I collapsed, mentally exhausted, and thought ‘what’s the point?’.
I’d been fighting this internal battle alone, in my own head, but that moment scared me enough to confide in my wife Katy. It was a turning point and it has changed by life for the better. I made a decision I was going to be happy again.
I’d been trying to push on alone through the pressure I was feeling. I was balancing sport and university, pushing myself to the limits physically and trying to make ends meet financially. As an aspiring Olympian, I didn’t want to show weakness, but it was draining me of energy. Some days I’d wake up and just want to sit on the couch.
Keeping everything to myself just made everything worse. Gradually I took steps to share my story, with my wife, then professional support, teammates and family.
I won an Olympic bronze medal and Commonwealth Games gold medal during this period, despite not feeling great. Now I wonder how much better I could have been. I want people to know that balance is so important in any walk of life and there is help. Elite athletes can put so much time and focus into peak performance that often we lose track of everything else going on around us.
Now I'm ready to fly again, I’m feeling a lot better with where I’m headed.
Erik Horrie - Rowing - Para
I ended up in a wheelchair at the age of 21, but a lot of people are more interested in my upbringing.
I was made a ward of the state at the age of seven, as a result of domestic violence and abuse, so I was brought up in foster care and then through Boys Towns. That was my childhood.
My partner fell pregnant, and our first child was just born when I had my accident and our lives were turned upside down. It was then that sport became an outlet, and helped give me an understanding of life after my accident.
Even though I couldn’t provide an income for our family, it was as if through sport that I was showing the kids that, with a positive outlook and self-belief, you can get where you want to be.
I played wheelchair basketball for Australia, and then transferred to rowing in 2011, which is where I guess I found my calling. I’ve since been lucky enough to go to two Paralympic Games (with a third, hopefully, next year), become a five-time world champion and multiple world record-holder.
I’ve also been at rock bottom, and I know it takes more of a person to ask for help than someone who puts up a wall and says ‘I’ve got no issues’.
I wouldn’t change anything that I’ve gone through in my life. Without it, I wouldn’t be the athlete, or the person, I am. I didn’t allow my childhood to define me. You’re the person that designs your picture frame. Society doesn’t.
Georgia Wilson - Hockey
I’ve struggled with an eating disorder. So has my little sister. I’ve got a perfectionist mentality, and it’s often the only thing you can control.
It was the same when I tore my ACL while I was preparing for last year’s Commonwealth Games. The loss of control was probably the biggest thing.
I’ve always suffered with mental health issues relating to sporting performance - particularly depression and anxiety - but the 12-month rehabilitation period was difficult for me to process.
I wish someone had said to me ‘look, you’re probably going to struggle for a very long time, but that’s OK’. A lot of what I was experiencing created even more anxiety and worry because I wasn’t sure if how I was feeling was ‘normal’.
Then unfortunately last year my younger sister underwent her own mental health battles. I don’t want anyone else to experience the night when we almost lost her.
I want to de-stigmatise the issues around mental health, especially for young people. As soon as I started talking about it and members of our friendship circle knew what was going on, they started to provide support for Mum.
It was overwhelming to find out how common this is; probably what was more shocking was how secretive a lot of families have been. I’d like to help change that, because you can’t help when you don’t know.
Jenna O’Hea - Basketball
In December 2018, my uncle took his life. We’re an extremely close family and we were stunned when that happened. It took a big toll on all of us.
I did a lot of research on the suicide statistics and I didn’t realise how high they were in Australia. Mental health issues are crippling our nation, in my opinion, and the numbers are rising every year.
That was how the WNBL's 'Lifeline Round' came about. In the last round of the season, every team donated $100 for every three-pointer they made, the WNBL matched the total number, and we were able to donate over $15,000 to Lifeline Australia. It was a really wonderful initiative, which will become an annual event.
But, more than the money raised, I wanted to create awareness and get people talking about it, because the stigma around mental health needs to end. We also need to be very conscious of the impact of social media and the keyboard warriors out there. Social media is a double-edged sword for many athletes and it can really affect people in a lot of ways.
My uncle was 46. People often tend to put on a brave face. You don’t know what they’re going through. So just in our family, from this we’re reaching out more and trying to have more open and honest conversations, which aren’t always easy.
Jonathan Goerlach - Triathlon
I’m an athlete with a condition called Usher Syndrome. It’s a rare genetic disorder that left me hearing-impaired at birth and then, at the age of 15, to learn that I have a degenerative vision impairment that meant I could eventually go completely blind.
How I’ve dealt with that - or not dealt with it, more importantly - has led to mental health issues which I've spent most of my adult life managing and learning from.
In my early 20s, I lost my identity. I thought ‘well, it’s going to get worse, I’m going blind, no-one can help me, I’ve just got to live my life’. So I basically acted as if I didn’t have this disability, and by not coming to terms with it early on, denying it's existence and subsequently avoiding things that I was passionate about - like the sports that I played for my entire youth - have manifested into bouts of depression and a daily grind with anxiety.
I didn’t realise when I gave up sport at age 18 that I could compete against other vision-impaired people, so I just gave up as I just couldn't bare the thought of not being able to compete because my eyes weren't working properly. It wasn’t until I came full circle 10 years later, back into sport, that my life changed - especially when I got into triathlon in 2012 and had a goal of making the Paralympics.
I still deal with mental health issues today. Every day. It doesn’t go away. You just have to learn to manage it. But I’m a completely different person now living a different life altogether - living my childhood dream of being an elite athlete.
It doesn’t have to be a disability; it can be any challenge in life, and learning from how people face adversity and come through challenges and what tools they’ve used.
Essentially it’s just about trying to share my experience. And even if one person benefits from it, that’s a win, right?
Josh Di Nucci - Gymnastics
I’m a men's artistic gymnast. The gym has been my constant, my safe place.
I like to think I started gymnastics in my mum's tummy; rolling and tumbling around in there. At the age of five, after participating in toddler gym, I was selected to train at the High Performance Centre in Perth, and have since gone on to proudly represent my club, state, and country.
In early 2016, while living and training at the Australian Institute of Sport, I was officially diagnosed with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. After learning about how OCD controlled my life, I made it my mission to live a meaningful and purposeful life while managing a complex mental illness.
Starting small, I began conversations with those around me about mental health and now love to engage in advocacy opportunities with the goal of planting seeds of change within society about just how great an impact OCD and mental illnesses can have on the lives of others.
Mental illness can silence people; through the Lifeline Community Custodian program I hope to bring light to those silenced and in need. I have an absolute passion for tearing down the walls of stigma and draw on candid experiences from my sporting career and personal life aimed at helping to empower, motivate, and inspire others.
Juliet Haslam - Hockey
As the mum of two teenage boys, it’s incredibly scary to know that young men comprise one of the highest risk categories for suicide.
I want my sons, their friends and all young people to know that it’s OK to feel down and that there is somewhere to go for help. I want them to feel comfortable to be able to talk openly about their issues and concerns.
In the last two or three years, I think there’s been real progress in mental health awareness, but there is still a long way to go. So I want to encourage everyone to start conversations about mental health; normalise it so that it’s something that’s OK to talk about.
The AIS/Lifeline initiative provides an incredible opportunity to connect with communities, share our own stories of resilience, and encourage everyone to open up and talk about mental health and wellbeing.
Many years ago my mum volunteered her time to what back then was called the Crisis Care Hotline. She’s very compassionate, thoughtful, caring and a great listener.
I guess, a bit like my mum, I want to be able to help people who are in emotional distress be able to reach out, and to provide a bit of hope and connection back into our community.
Karen Murphy - Bowls
I’ve just retired from international sport after 23 years of playing for the Australian lawn bowls team, the Jackaroos. I guess being the veteran of a lawn bowls team is a bit weird at the ripe old age of 46.
Sport’s been my life so I’m certainly finding the transitioning very different. I’ve never known anything else. I’ve never studied anything. So I guess you question your identity.
It’s a bit of a roller-coaster, going from thinking ‘yep, I’m going to be all right’ to ‘I really miss it, I miss the people’. I can totally see how someone could really suffer and let it get them down.
So it’s about keeping busy, signing up for new things, and getting involved in different programs, broadening my horizons and ticking some life boxes in areas I haven’t had the opportunity to try yet.
Mental health is obviously a very prominent subject at the moment, whether it’s within sport or just general life. I think it’s great that we’re actually talking about it now within the community, whereas a few years ago it was still a bit taboo.
I’ve been in some fantastic teams, been to five Commonwealth Games, and I’ve got skills in leadership and team environment and culture and things like that, so hopefully I can put those to good use going forward.
Kristy Harris - Boxing
Mental illness - including depression, anxiety and bipolar - is something that runs in my family. I have seen close ones suffer from a young age and quickly learnt the importance of mental health. It became even more apparent to me when a local high school experienced several student suicides in a short amount of time.
My personal experience began in my early teens experiencing depression and social anxiety, which led to binge drinking. Bad habits started spiralling and it wasn’t until I started boxing that I gained some self-confidence and began to better myself. I can’t express how much my sport has helped me mentally.
The depression returned in 2017 when I badly broke my leg and was housebound for three months. Missing trips, selections and mostly not being able to train really put me in a bad place. It was then that I spoke to a professional and began working on my wellbeing. Sometimes you don’t realise how bad a place you are in until you open up about it.
I have had close friends have breakdowns - some so bad that I have driven them to hospital. Hearing from someone you care about say they don’t want to live or they have nothing to live for is heartbreaking. All I want to do is help and that’s why this position stood out to me so much.
I was diagnosed with social anxiety and clinical depression around nine months ago. I’d been showing symptoms for over two years, and knowing what is going on has definitely helped a lot.
It was frustrating just being sad all the time, and I did have suicidal ideations because it kind of got to the point where I was ‘I just want to be happy, why can’t I be happy?’
So being diagnosed did clear the path for me and make me aware that I can get past this; that this is just a temporary thing, and by getting help it’s going to give me a clearer picture of how I should be viewing the world.
I want to normalise the discussion around mental health - especially for adolescents and young adults. That’s the time in their life where they can be most vulnerable to this type of thing.
Many young people want to conform and fit in with society, so it can be awkward or uncomfortable for them to talk about how they’re feeling, and they might be worried what people think.
I am really passionate about breaking the stigma around mental health issues. Talk to someone. It doesn’t need to be a trained professional, just talk to anyone. It can really lift a weight off you and provide some relief once it’s out there and you’re not bottling it up any more.
Louise Ellery - Athletics - Para
I have bipolar, have attempted suicide and suffer from depression. I am now disabled and am in a wheelchair.
In 1998 I had a major car accident resulting in me having an Acquired Brain Injury.
I’ve had mental health issues myself starting, with depression in my teenage years and I have been stuck in desperate situations. I really want to help people to learn that there’s someone out there they can reach out to.
I want people to know they’re not alone. Lifeline 131114 will listen at any time of the day.
My experiences have given me great empathy. I definitely believe sharing my experiences can help other people who are struggling. I know it’s not a great thing to be in those situations, but I’ve kind of been there, done that, and I would like to help other people.
I was really excited when I was asked to be part of the Lifeline Community Custodians Program.
I am in a much happier place now; I’ve competed internationally in para-athletics for 13 years and am receiving medical help with my mental illness. I am just your normal everyday person.
There’s nothing like sport to get your brain in the right place. Physical exercise, it’s so good for your
mental health and spirits. It has certainly helped me.
Matt Lewis - Wheelchair Rugby - Para
One night in 2011 when I was 24 and in a bit of a desperate place in my life, I was mucking around with some mates and some homemade explosives.
It’s a pretty crazy story. I ended up losing both legs above the knee and most of my fingers.
As an amputee who’s gone through that traumatic experience and the challenges that went along with it, the Lifeline program really spoke to me.
What led me to that place that year was really feeling a lack of purpose in life, and that’s specifically how I feel I can contribute now: to those feeling lost.
After it all happened I was in an induced coma for a month. When I woke up I had the support of friends and family who were visiting me in hospital, and it was probably that sense of feeling connected that got me through.
It might not be messing with explosives, but people do all kinds of crazy stuff - younger people especially, drink driving and making decisions that end up affecting them for the rest of their life.
My message is that you don’t have to go through traumatic events to know that there are people that care, and being part of this program is a way for me to feel connected, still.
Monique Murphy - Swimming - Para
In 2014, during my second year of university, I fell from a fifth floor balcony. It was suspected that my drink had been spiked.
Along with many, many other injuries, I had my leg amputated below the knee.
The police had ruled that it was a suicide attempt, so that’s what I woke up to after I was in a coma for a week. I had no memory of the accident; those are eight hours I can not place, at all.
Even though I was assessed to be mentally sound and suicide was no longer suspected, a lot of friends dropped out of the picture. I was 19. At that age a lot of people don’t know what to do around mental illness, or suicide-prevention, so they just stayed away. But it just made me feel even more isolated.
I won a silver medal at the Paralympic Games just two years after my accident. There is no way I could have done that if I didn’t have the emotional support of my family and the friends that did stick around.
I’ve always been big on community engagement, been a volunteer and studied social work at university. A program like this that promotes the need to check in with people, have those conversations and encourage those discussions around mental health is just paramount.
Natasha Van Eldik - Bowls
I was bullied at school from a very young age and suffered stress and anxiety for many years.
People I believed were my friends thought it was OK to light my hair on fire on the bus because I looked different. I wore glasses. I had really fluffy, curly hair. I was a little overweight. And I had braces as well, so I had the whole mix.
During this period of my life it wasn’t normal to speak out or seek professional help, but I understood that it was OK; that I was strong for doing so. And obviously things changed over time; there was less of a stigma.
Lawn bowls was my safe place, and that’s pretty much why I got into it. None of the bullies were playing lawn bowls as part of school sport, so I thought I would just go there and get away from it all.
I ended up finding I had a bit of a talent, and I could just relax and have no worries in the world.
By sharing my story, I want to reach out to people who are in the same position I was. I hope the younger generation who might be experiencing bullying at school realise that other people have been through it, and know it’s OK to speak out.
Nathan Katz - Judo
People look at a lot of athletes and and assume they have an amazing life, travelling the world and making money. It might seem perfect, but it’s not always like that.
Last year there were two really high-profile suicide cases in my sport - judo - within about six or seven weeks of each other.
One was a guy I idolised who was part of our training group in England. It was so sudden and unexpected, and came as a complete shock to everyone. The other was an American I didn’t know quite as well, but there were a lot of similarities between us that also made that quite confronting.
I’ve started to think a lot more about things, including the way I interact with people, and about what you don’t see.
We spend a lot of time away from home, as well, so it’s just opened my eyes a lot more to the whole issue of mental health and then the stigma surrounding it; people not feeling like they’re able to speak up in case it’s seen as weakness.
It’s not so much that I’ve had any big issues myself, but I think it’s good for people to see athletes who are not afraid to be a little bit vulnerable and open. They may come across as being really successful, but that’s often not the case.
Rachael Lynch - Hockey
I work as a nurse, in neurological rehab, and I’ve always had an interest in mental health. Particularly the day-to-day things that can improve general wellbeing: having conversations and providing resources and support for people who are going through general stresses.
So in a sense it’s just helping people, and that’s the appeal for me.
I’ve been working with R U OK, the suicide prevention organisation, for about eight or nine years. I joined them pretty early on; when they were just literally a small group of people with a big dream.
They’re based in Sydney, so I’ve tried to be one of the main ambassadors in WA. Myself and one of my ex-Hockeyroos teammates, Ash Nelson, have done some reasonably big efforts to raise funds - about $30,000 by walking the Kokoda Trail and around the same amount cycling from Perth to Albany - and spread the word.
So for me this is a new challenge, in that it’s shifting the focus a little bit. R U OK is more about awareness and preventing someone getting to a crisis point, whereas Lifeline is a bit different; whether it’s managing a mental illness or working with people who are actually going through an acute crisis or even just having a bad day.
So that’s why I was keen to be involved. This is another element in the cycle of mental health which will help me upskill in that area as well.
The AIS has partnered with Lifeline Australia to provide opportunities for current and former elite athletes to tell their own personal story/journey by raising awareness of mental health issues, suicide prevention and encouraging people to seek help if needed.
Athletes currently in the program are encouraged to re-apply.
For further information about this program or opportunities to be involved please contact firstname.lastname@example.org
Outcomes for Athletes:
Athletes involved in the program will:
- Receive communication and leadership, mental health first aid training and resources to assist athletes with information regarding mental health and suicide prevention.
- Attend a minimum of three events or functions (facilitated by the AIS or Lifeline) where you may be required to speak about your experiences in the program. The AIS will assist you in finding further events to attend if interested and will cover the costs associated with attending.
- Be required to travel to rural and remote areas.
- Post at least one social media post per visit and an additional six social media posts relating to community engagement activities. Additional content can be developed/supplied by the AIS in consultation with you.
- Take part in marketing and promotional content for AIS and Lifeline initiatives as required.
- Take part in any program research or evaluation where required.
- Organise a minimum of one occasion with your AW&E manager within your sport to present back on learnings to other athletes and staff within your sporting community.
April 2020 – March 2021. The program will commence in April 2020 when athletes will be required to attend a mandatory training with experts in communicating safely and with leadership.