Joe Williams knows what it’s like to live each day with a huge weight bearing down on his shoulders.
During his NRL career, the former player for the South Sydney Rabbitohs, Penrith Panthers and Canterbury Bulldogs had to perform in front of a viewing audience of hundreds of thousands of people, and since 2009 he’s pursued a professional boxing career.
But this proud Wiradjuri Aboriginal man has weathered other, less visible pressures.
“I’ve battled with depression as long as I can remember,” Joe says.
“Growing up, I put huge expectations on myself to perform and compete at a high level. And when I didn’t do that, I was extremely critical of myself.
“As a 16, 17 year old I moved away from the bush into the city to pursue my footy career and had days when I couldn’t get out of bed. I thought I was just homesick.”
Even when Williams was selected to play in the NRL, the “down days” and self-criticism didn’t disappear.
“I started to self-medicate with a lot of alcohol and prescription drugs to manage the anxiety,” Joe says.
He started making life changes to improve how he was feeling, including seeing doctors, commencing antidepressant medication and giving up all drugs and alcohol. However the end of Joe’s marriage and another subsequent relationship left him so unwell that he attempted to take his own life. His treatment included a stay in hospital.
Learning to manage his depression and bipolar disorder in the wake of that episode has been a gradual process.
“There wasn’t one significant turning point,” Joe says of his recovery.
“I’ve had to learn what’s good for me and what’s bad for me. Learning what’s bad for me has been even more important than learning what’s good for me.”
Joe stays well with the help of medication, mindfulness, and by working towards short term goals such as winning his next fight.
“My advice is to pay attention to what’s going on around you as an individual. I’m someone who does not let anyone negative into my life. You have to be mindful of how you feel and be aware, be compassionate. Having compassion and respect for other people is a huge thing in my life now.”
Joe also derives purpose from his work as a public speaker and Aboriginal Education Worker.
“Mental illness doesn’t just affect the Aboriginal community, it affects everyone, but unfortunately it’s even more prominent in our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community. Depression and mental illness and suicide in Aboriginal communities is a huge flow on effect from things that happened 200 years ago. A lot of people don’t like to hear that, but it is what it is. We’ve been oppressed for 200 years, knocked down to the point where many people start to develop these mental illnesses. We’ve got to help our community build their resilience and confidence.”
He’s reached out to the NRL community too, in the wake of other players publicly sharing their own mental health issues.
“The players aren’t going to relate to psychologists with a framed piece of paper on the wall. They’re going to relate to guys playing footy and feeling the way they feel. I’ve been in that position. Going through my own misfortunes has allowed me to help other people, and that’s what I want to do on a full time basis.
“Helping people helps me.”