Digging in for mental health

They might have looked tough, but two of Australia’s best professional fighters were in Kalgoorlie-Boulder this week to remind locals that mental illness does not discriminate.

Former Ultimate Fighting Championship athlete Soa “The Hulk” Palelei and World Boxing Council world champion Lulu “Bang Bang” Hawton have been presenting the Strong Minds, Strong Mines mental health program during this year’s Diggers & Dealers conference.

An initiative of contractor Macmahon Holdings, the program aims to provide mining companies with the tools required to improve the health and wellbeing of their staff.

Mental health ambassadors Palelei and Hawton also visited Kalgoorlie-Boulder Community High School this week to encourage young people to access help when they need it.

Palelei often visits mine sites to talk with staff about his own battles with depression and said sharing a personal experience was more effective than using statistics to raise awareness about mental illness.

“You can stand up and you can have stats up on a board and you can say, ‘Well in 2017, this many males suicided and this many women suicided,’ but the problem is, they won’t listen,” he said.

“The most important thing is the human factor – in order for you to listen to me, I need to tell you something that you are going to feel in your heart.

“If you don’t feel it in your heart, you are not going to listen and it is just going to be another presentation that goes in and out.”

Palelei said even though his athletic career was what saved him during a particularly difficult time in his life, he still experienced suicidal thoughts when he was at the top of his game.

“I was standing on the chair with a rope wrapped around my neck… it was like somebody woke me up and I thought, ‘I need to go see a professional and have that talk’.” He said.

“My oldest daughter saved my life… it was by a simple text message that she replied back and saved my life, otherwise I wouldn’t be here.

“That was at the pinnacle of my career, so it didn’t matter what was going on, it was just that I couldn’t reach out and have those conversations with my coaches because of the stigma.

“I thought if I said something they’d go ‘toughen up soldier, you’re one of the modern day gladiators’.”

Hawton has also battled with mental illness and agreed it was difficult to seek help as a professional athlete.

“At that level, everybody looks at us like we are though and can do anything but we are still human” she said.

“When you are stuck in that dark place you are isolated, but you are isolating because you don’t know how to reach out.

“From my time in that dark place I now recognise that you will still go into some tunnels in your life, but when you can recognise that you are the light in the dark tunnel, that you just have to be able to turn your own light up, then you are able to lead yourself through anything that life gives you.”

Hawton has always been passionate about sport but only started boxing when she was 29-years-old.

For the past three years, she has been travelling to and from the United States to compete and said she knew all too well of the impact of fly-in, fly-out work on mental health.

“I have two children so when I am in the States, I am spending a lot of time away from my family.” She said.

“I probably feel it more than they do because I am the one by myself trying to do all the work to be able to provide for them and it’s the same with mining – you go away and you come back and to live… that lifestyle is challenging.”

Alongside Palelei, Hawton hopes to encourage school students and mining staff to use physical activity as a tool to improve mental health.

“Boxing helped save my life to some degree and helped set me on a really positive path.” she said.

“Being a professional athlete at the top of my game speaking up and being able to share my own experiences will help others be able to open up about what they are going through.

“Life is about sharing what we are doing and making sure that everybody else has a voice – to be able to give people that voice is important.”

Palelei applauded mining companies which were already actively involving in improving the wellbeing of their employees but said he had met many workers who were still suffering in silence.

“I had a person who gave me a letter and said to me ‘This is a letter I wrote to my wife and kids to say goodbye’ because that was going to be his last swing” he said.

“I have done presentations where people quit their jobs after – I have done that presentation and then they handed in their resignation ‘saying sorry this is not for me, I want to spend time with my family.”

Palelei said it was not until people had the courage to let others know about their mental health struggles that healing could begin.

“Just talk, have that conversation and reach out.” He said. 

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