Phil Waugh is an ambassador of the R U OK campaign, which seeks to encourage all Australians to meaningfully connect with people around them and support anyone struggling with life. He talks about the power of conversations to change lives for the better.
He was as tough as nails on the rugby pitch, playing at the elite level for the NSW Waratahs and Wallabies for over a decade. But beneath the hardened exterior of perhaps one of rugby’s greatest openside flankers, lies another side to Phil Waugh; an advocate for the emotional and mental wellbeing of all Australians.
And with an annual price tag of $60 billion being spent on mental ill health, it’s a cause close to Phil’s heart.
“Good mental health and wellbeing underpins the way we go about doing everything in our lives; it underpins the way you live your life, every minute of every day. So, for me, it’s very important that people spend the right amount of time to ensure they are in the best possible mental state,” Phil says.
Yet, despite the rigours of training and experiencing the highs and lows of playing at the elite level, the ex Wallabies and Waratahs skipper – who notched up 136 appearances with the Waratahs and 79 matches with the Wallabies – admits to having been fortunate to have enjoyed good mental health, although this hasn’t always been the case with others close to him.
“I’ve been affected by incidences throughout my life, particularly with some people close to me, who have suffered mental health issues. So, we need to be much more aware of what’s happening around us with friends, family and colleagues, and understanding the impact that mental wellbeing has on an individual.”
And with mental health issues ranging from depression and anxiety, to stress, violence, grief, relationships, financial stress, self-harm, substance abuse, addiction, loneliness and isolation, it’s hardly surprising that one in every five Australians will experience some sort of mental illness throughout their lifetime.
In fact, the statistics are staggering. In 2016, 2,866 Australians took their own lives, equating to eight people everyday. And for every death by suicide, an estimated 30 people will attempt to take their life. It’s against this backdrop that Phil passionately believes that greater awareness of mental wellbeing needs to feature more prominently on the national agenda.
R U OK
For too long, mental health issues have been considered a taboo topic in society – best spoken about behind closed doors. But Phil believes it’s time to discard this antiquated and mistaken approach to mental illness, which is a message he takes in his ambassador’s role with national suicide prevention initiative – R U OK. It’s an involvement that the 38-year-old has had with the charitable organisation for the past 10 years.
The R U OK campaign is targeted at raising national awareness of the importance for people to have meaningful conversations with friends and loved ones that could save lives.
Each year there is a national day of action – R U OK?Day – where the organisation seeks to engage with the wider community about the importance of engaging and supporting friends and family who are struggling with life. This year is the tenth national day of action and is scheduled for Thursday 13 September.
“Mental health and wellbeing is something that’s starting to get a little bit more focus on but it’s an issue that we can’t focus enough on,” Phil says. “R U OK is about keeping an eye out for your friends. It’s about being aware of any signs or changed behaviour that’s having an impact on their lives, and understanding the possible end impact that these changes could cause.”
It’s about connectivity and discussion
Today, Phil skilfully juggles his ambassadorial duties with his career as National Manager, Auto Finance at St George, where he leads a team specialising in providing retail consumer automotive loans, retail business automotive loans and floor plan business lending to motor dealers.
It’s an impressive job but it’s in his ambassador’s role with R U OK that Phil particularly thrives, enjoying the opportunity to talk to others about their wellbeing, whilst sharing his own personal insights. And not surprisingly, as a sportsman, his approach to keeping the ‘black dog’ at bay revolves around personal health and fitness.
“Personally, I think physical wellbeing is incredibly important and has a strong correlation with mental wellbeing. Exercising and living a healthy lifestyle, which includes a nutritious diet, has a significant and beneficial impact on your mental wellbeing.”
And while that’s a significant part of the equation, he also identifies the importance of surrounding yourself with people who genuinely care about you.
“The strength of our relationships come from the people within them,” he says. “That’s why the R U OK campaign is focused on the importance of having conversations and identifying behavioural changes in the people around you. It’s about promoting discussion to help identify those people who may be struggling and so, help them change their outlook on life.”
Breaking it down into processes
Yet, having competed at the highest level in world sport, with a combined Super Rugby and international rugby career spanning 12 years – with three matches as Wallabies captain and 58 games as skipper of the Waratahs – Phil routinely carried the overwhelming expectations of his country (and state) on his back. So, how did he cope under these very stressful conditions?
“You definitely get caught up in the moment,” he laughs. “So, for me, it was about breaking down the enormity of the event, like a Bledisloe Cup match, to the actual processes involved. This meant removing myself from the expectations of those around me and from any distractions, like thinking about possible scenarios if things didn’t go to plan.
“Instead, it was always about breaking down my performance into simple processes that I was comfortable about, enabling me to know that if I performed those processes to the best of my ability, then the eventual outcome will look after itself.”
He says the great leveller in sport is the fact you either win or lose, and that’s a fact you can’t hide from.
“In sport, you get to experience the highs and lows relatively frequently. So, for me, if things don’t go well, with a positive outlook and by looking forward – and not getting bogged down on reflecting back – things can change quite quickly. And that’s the same with your mental wellbeing.
“So, always look forward and not dwell in the past. That means, firstly, focus on what the positive outlook looks like and secondly, work out how to achieve it.”
It’s an approach he believes translates just as well from the sporting arena to the workplace and home.
Dismantling traditional barriers
But how is Phil breaking down the traditional stoicism that men typically have when dealing with their own emotional wellbeing?
It’s an interesting question, given women are more confident talking about their emotions and state-of-mind, whereas men often bottle up their emotional mindset because it’s what ‘society expects’. The result: males account for 75 per cent of deaths by suicide.
“It’s a tragic statistic, but times are changing and through campaigns, like R U OK, men are feeling more empowered and supported to step up and talk about their mental health,” Phil says. “They’re realising its okay not to be okay.”
So, how is he encouraging more Australians, and particularly men, to share their vulnerability in seeking help?
“As men, we sometimes feel that we shouldn’t show emotion or vulnerability. So, we need to remind each other that it’s okay not to be okay, and to help one another through those rough patches when we can,” he says.
“In fact, vulnerability is actually an endearing quality. When people open up and show their vulnerability, that really touches the person they are talking to.”
However, he concedes that one of the biggest issues facing society today is our over-reliance on technology. “People get so caught up these days with texting or emailing or social media, that we’re missing out on the personal connection we used to have.”
It’s an omnipresent problem. The more technologically connected we are, the more physically disconnected we are with those around us.
But even Phil sees a silver lining with the adoption of technology.
“While it’s not the same as talking face-to-face, receiving a text, email or message through a social media platform is still impactful in letting people know you care about them. It’s another way of connecting with people and reaching out to them,” he says.
“Really, the whole concept of R U OK isn’t a massive deal. It’s simply about connectivity; of reaching out and checking in on people who you may not always connect with or who you might frequently connect with but don’t ask the question about whether they’re okay or not.
“Remember, it’s okay not to be okay. Mental wellness affects everybody. So, reach out to people and stay connected with them.”
4 steps that could change a life
Got a niggling feeling that someone you know or care about isn’t behaving as they normally would? Perhaps they seem out of sorts? More agitated or withdrawn? Or they’re just not themselves. Phil Waugh says trust your gut instinct and act on it.
By starting a conversation and commenting on the changes you’ve noticed, you could help that family member, friend or workmate open up. If they say they are not okay, you can follow the four conversation steps outlined below to show them they’re supported and help them find strategies to better manage the load.
If they are okay, that person will know you’re someone who cares enough to ask.
1. Ask – Are you okay?
Be relaxed, friendly and concerned in your approach.
Help the individual open up by asking questions like: ‘How are you going?’ or ‘What’s been happening?’
Mention specific things that have made you concerned for them, like: ‘You seem less chatty than usual. How are you going?’
2. Listen – without judgement
Take what they say seriously and don’t interrupt or rush the conversation.
Don’t judge their experiences or reactions but acknowledge that things seem tough for them.
If they need time to think, sit patiently with the silence.
Encourage them to explain and then show that you’ve listened by repeating back what you’ve heard, and ask if you have understood them properly.
3. Encourage action
Ask: ‘What have you done in the past to manage similar situations?’
Ask: ‘How would you like me to support you?’
Ask: ‘What’s something you can do for yourself right now? Something that’s enjoyable or relaxing?’
If they’ve been feeling really down for more than two weeks, encourage them to see a health professional. You could say: ‘It might be useful to link in with someone who can support you. I’m happy to assist you to find the right person to talk to.’ And be positive about the role of professionals in getting through tough times.
4. Check in
Pop a reminder in your diary to call them in a couple of weeks. If they’re really struggling, follow up with them sooner.
You could say: ‘I’ve been thinking of you and wanted to know how you’ve been going since we last chatted.’
Ask if they’ve found a better way to manage the situation. If they haven’t done anything, don’t judge them. They might just need someone to listen to them for the moment.
Stay in touch and be there for them. Genuine care and concern can make a real difference.
Some conversations are too big for family, friends or colleagues to take on alone. If you think someone is at risk, contact a professional.
Support for depression and bipolar disorder – (02) 9382 4530
Crisis support and suicide prevention – 13 11 14
Counselling service for people suffering grief – 1300 845 745
Anxiety, depression and suicide prevention – 1300 224 636
Supporting youth with mental health, drug and alcohol issues – 1800 650 890
Money & Life, FPA Website