Joe Williams

We can reduce the Indigenous suicide rate through connection to culture

Author: Joe Williams

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Joey WilliamsJoe Williams is a proud Wiradjuri man, a motivational speaker, title-winning boxer, dancer and former professional rugby league player..

As I sit and ponder the “what could have been” in my life, I am so very thankful for every single knock, put down, set back, break-up I’ve ever had. As silly as it sounds, I am even thankful for the day I had my suicide attempt – for they have all played part in exactly where I am today. I am extremely thankful to be able to share my message in many different countries, to many different people.

In 2012, I believed with all my being that I didn’t deserve to be alive any longer. I was fighting an attack on my brain called mental illness: bipolar disorder, severe depression, suicidal ideation and anxiety. I remember the day like it was yesterday, a vivid flashback of attempting to end my life. Sometimes it is hard to believe where I am today, five years on from that difficult time. I have learnt to live with and manage my illness, and people even turn to me for advice in living mentally well.

No matter where I am in the world, I always keep my lessons close and my culture even closer. I can be in a different country on a different continent, but I know I am a Wiradjuri First Nations man, before anything else.

For 10 years before my toughest day, I was a professional rugby league player in the NRL. I made my first grade debut in 2004, joining the top-line squad, training on a full-time schedule. One could be excused for thinking I was living my ultimate dream. I was certainly doing what many young Aboriginal boys dream of doing. There were times when I would be asked in the street for a picture or an autograph. On the outside, things looked perfect.

What people didn’t realise is that I was struggling with horrific suicidal ideation during my lows of depression. My dark thoughts were so deafening and real that they sounded like actual voices talking to me. For someone who appeared so bright and bubbly on the exterior, I was lonely and couldn’t bare to tell anyone my secrets of mental pain. I pushed everyone away.

In the days leading up to my suicide attempt, I was hoping that someone, anyone, would see it and understand it and help me to find light – so I wouldn’t be thinking and stepping into the dark places I was headed. But not one person was able to help, because I kept it all inside, too hidden away.

Almost five years on from when I made the attempt on my life, today I get to be that beacon of light and hope for others in similar positions of pain. I get to travel Australia and the world interacting, educating and sharing my experience, helping others. I get to tell people, “You are going to be OK. It will pass,” because I know from experience that it does.

The most significant part in my recovery has been the reconnection and reawakening in myself of my Aboriginal culture. In 2016, I was asked to be a keynote speaker at the world Indigenous Suicide Prevention Conference in New Zealand. I delivered a speech aimed at highlighting the importance of how culture has helped in my recovery. Part of my address involved a short clip that showed the power of connection to culture through dance.

For 60,000 years, our First Nations people respected, lived, loved and cared for each other and the land. My reconnection to those traditions through dance and culture clears my head, allows my spirit to be free. Dance provides connection to self, ancestors, others, land, spirit and our ancient songlines and lore. Through dance I am a much more settled and safe self.

I believe there is something in this for all of us, no matter race or religion. Within this connection to culture I see a way to end the horrific suicide rate for not only our people, but all people. The answer is in connection. Whether you connect to the land, culture, family or friends – connection keeps us alive.

I am so lucky I survived, so lucky I am still around. I have my second chance at life, helping people and spreading a message of hope and management of mental illness. This is a gift I am grateful for each day I open my eyes. The years of professional sport I experienced were fantastic, but I truly believe the next 15 will be revealed as my purpose in life. That is the most exciting part.

Currently I’m travelling country, delivering my story and shooting a documentary that will highlight the beauty of our traditional culture, and how living the old ways will reduce our horrific suicide rates. I’m not proposing we all go back to living in the bush but I am suggesting we look into living with the old cultural values that our people have shared for eternity. I’m speaking of love and caring for one and other, humility in community and Nupitji Nupitji – which means to always share; because if everyone is sharing, then everyone is receiving.

In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is on 13 11 14. In the UK, the Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123. In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Hotline is 1-800-273-8255.

This story was first published on 3 April 2017 by Guardian Australia as part of their collaboration with IndigenousX. Produced with assistance of IndigenousX & Guardian Australia staff.

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