Wayne Schwass, Founder and CEO of PukaUp
Wayne Schwass is a former AFL player whose 282-game career included one premiership (North Melbourne in 1996), three club best-and-fairest awards and All-Australian selection.
For much of his football career Wayne battled depression, which – as a side to his work as a football commentator and motivational speaker – has led to him becoming a passionate mental health advocate. He recently launched PukaUp, a social enterprise which focuses on mental health, emotional well-being and suicide prevention.
The Dad Website’s Daniel Lewis caught up with Wayne recently for a chat about his latest venture, a life battling mental and emotional demons, and playing dad to three children.
DL: Thanks for your time, Wayne. Could we kick this off with a bit of an overview of PukaUp?
WS: OK, “Pukka” is a Hindi word; its definition is “authentic and genuine”. I decided on this name for two very clear reasons: one, I was neither authentic or genuine for 12-and-a-half years, when I lived with mental health conditions, and it cost me greatly. So these are two values that I live and breathe every day, because they are very important to me to maintain my physical, emotional and mental health.
The other reason is that it’s the message we’re trying to communicate to people. We create and we curate conversations; so, we don’t deliver programs but we have a number of initiatives that we’re currently working on through social media. We [also] have a large suicide prevention bike ride planned for next March; a documentary; and a range of apparel. Our mission is to create particular conversations about mental health and emotional well-being in environments that are safe, supportive and non-judgmental; and for every person to know the value of communication, and knowing how to talk and having the ability to reach out and ask for help – which, as a general comment, men aren’t particularly good at.
I’ve done a lot of evaluating on my own life. I’ve had a journey that has been challenging, like a lot of people, and having worked in this area for 12 years and seeing some of the issues that are confronted by men in particular, I’m absolutely convinced that one of the contributing factors to why six of the eight suicides every day in Australia are men, is because of this notion of masculinity and what it means to be a man – which, in my view, is fundamentally flawed.
There is enough research that supports the argument that boys are just as, if not more, emotionally expressive than girls up until the age of 8 or 9. And then something changes, which I believe is the expectation that others place us, or society expects from us, because we are male. I think this is causing men a lot of stress.
DL: Yes, and I guess this extends to the fact that – and this has been a particularly common theme in the men we’ve featured on The Dad Website – the face of fatherhood has changed so much in recent times, and many blokes feel uncertain as to what is expected of them, physically and emotionally.
WS: Yep. From what I’ve seen, the difference between men and women – and this is not a sexist conversation; we’re all exposed to influential women in our lives, whether it’s mum, wife, daughters, grandmother or auntie – is that women from a very early age are taught, supported, and encouraged to talk. It’s a very simple thing to do. They are not judged for talking about anything and everything. I don’t believe men have the same environment to communicate about things beyond sport, work and children.
I ask this question all the time when I talk: what are some of the characteristics and values of being a man? [Responses are typically] things like: strong, resilient, tough, loyal, hard-working, protector, provider – and all of these are valuable qualities – but very rarely do I get values like: sensitivity, vulnerability, emotions, the ability to cry without fear or failure, care, compassion and love.
This stereotypical molding applies to a lot of men, and I was guilty of this myself; I didn’t have the emotional intelligence to question the expectations upon me and whether it’s good for me or not? But because I wasn’t used to doing that, I just accepted it. Society tries to put square pegs in round holes in this regard.
I don’t believe men have the same environment to communicate about things beyond sport, work and children…
DL: Take us back to when you became aware something was up – was it early in your AFL career?
WS: No, it was before that. I always felt like I was different, but I couldn’t put my finger on it, because a big part of who I am is that I’m a caring and compassionate and loving person. And I never would have said what I just to you – a complete male stranger – 10 years ago.
WS: No, there wasn’t. And it’s a general comment, but we tend to speak about things that we feel safe talking about: work, sport, children – they’re safe topics because we’re under control. But when we talk about emotions, feelings, stress, anxiety, mental health conditions, marital problems, financial issues – we’re actually exposing ourselves and we feel vulnerable and we are conceding a level of control over a situation; therefore we tend to shut it down. And shutting it down causes significant stress. Which is why your website, our organisation, Men’s Shed and Men’s Health Week are very important and valuable because there’s a part of us that we sub-consciously disconnect from, because that’s what we’re told what we don’t do.
DL: Can you describe how you felt when you were at your worst?
WS: I was diagnosed with depression on the 9th of August, 1993, and I was really sick from ’93 through to midway of 1999. I refused any form of professional help; I resented the fact that I had mental health conditions. I self-medicated with an incredible amount of alcohol and marijuana, and I did this to numb the pain because I didn’t know how to experience or express emotion. These conditions invaded every area of my life, and I was incredibly suicidal from 1993 until 1997, to the point where I put myself in three life-threatening situations that fortunately didn’t eventuate. The reason thoughts of suicide were my constant companion, was because I had a toolbox that had alcohol and marijuana in it; it was emotionally bankrupt.
DL: And you couldn’t talk to any friends or any of your teammates…
WS: That’s right, I didn’t know how to talk to a male. I didn’t know how to talk to my dad about real things, things that were causing me stress – I’d never grown up in that environment. And compounding that, I was playing a sport that discouraged showing any form of weakness or emotion.
DL: What do you think about the likes of ‘Buddy’ Franklin, Alex Fasolo and others of late publicly declaring their battles – it’s obviously a very positive step?
WS: I think it’s nothing short of inspirational. I don’t believe Alex, Lance or a Mitch Clark or a Daniel Menzel, or any other high-profile persons, have [gone public] to help other people get well; they’re doing it primarily, in the first instance, to get themselves healthy and well – and a byproduct of doing that is it gives tremendous hope and optimism to people in the broader community who are living with similar conditions; that it can happen to anybody. And I hope it encourages everyone to shake the stigma and come forward and ask for help.
DL: And an extension of that is that clubs are a lot more proactive in regards to player welfare these days?
WS: They are – but I’m very confident that there’d be other Alex Fasolos within football clubs that haven’t asked for help.
DL: For sure, but the tide is turning, ever so slowly…
WS: Yes, slowly. We’ve got to push the pendulum of that conversation much further the other way as quickly as we possibly can.
I had a toolbox that had alcohol and marijuana in it; it was emotionally bankrupt…
DL: Moving on to fatherhood – you’ve got three kids?
WS: Yep, twin girls who are about to turn 14, and a son who’s 10.
DL: What does being a dad mean to you?
WS: It means that I need to be a protector and provider, but it’s much more than what was traditionally seen as the role of a dad. It’s important that I’m present and engaged at home: I’m a role-model, whether I like it or not, as is my wife. How I behave with my wife and interact with her, and my ability to communicate with her, is subtly educating my son that this is normal.
Going beyond that, I want to create an environment for my kids where they feel not only safe and secure but feel tremendous love and affection, giving them the ability to freely expression compassion and emotion. One of my most important priorities is to encourage and foster my son’s full range of emotions – sadness, happiness, anger, frustration, joy, sensitivity, the ability to cry openly – and to acknowledge this is a strong and powerful thing to do. And if I can do this with my son in particular, then I’m confident that by the time he leaves home, he’s got a toolbox of emotional skills that I never had, which allows him to cope. I think this is my greatest gift to him if I can get this right.
DL: I get the feeling that getting awareness around mental health and achieving your parenting goals would override any of your footballing or media achievements…
WS: Look, I’ve got no doubt, it’s the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do, raising children…
DL: Yes, it is hard!
WS: … But what I’ve done in my footy career is a chapter that was written a long time ago, and it has no real relevance to what I do today. And if I’m to be really honest, I wrote a recent post, I thought I was emotionally connected… and I’m always evaluating my behaviour – am I being the best father, the best husband, the best person I can possibly be? – and it dawned on me recently with my girls having some challenges, that when they get visibly upset, I don’t have that connection – I don’t get the sensation or feeling that I’m about to cry. And it frustrates me greatly because I want to share in my children’s pain; I want my kids to see me cry, because I think it’s really important they see their dad vulnerable; that their dad isn’t afraid of expressing his emotions. [For the post] I went through and wrote a brutally honest list outlining my first six emotions – and not one of them were sensitive emotions; there was frustration, disappointment, annoyance, anger, those things. And I thought: they’re the emotions I’m most comfortable with; they are readily accessible to me.
That the ability to cry and show raw emotion is not something I have available, that tells me that I have work to do.
DL: How do you think the role of the father is perceived in society today?
WS: That’s a very subjective question, and one I can only answer on my own behalf. It’s a shared responsibility; I have a big role to play, alongside my wife. I don’t have an expectation that my wife is the person that keeps them safe, happy, fed and drops them off to school. I take my kids two times a week to school, I participate in my kids’ sporting as much as I possibly can. So while we may have slightly different roles, my wife and I, she needs my support as much as I need hers, but our kids need to see that both their parents are actively playing an important and engaged role in their lives.
DL: We have a column called The Heart Talks, where dads write open letters to their children about things they should know before they turn 18. This might be a bit on-the-spot, but could you name five life lessons?
WS: The first thing that I’d say to all my kids is, your identity and worth, and how you perceive yourself, is not a reflection of how many followers, likes, shares and positive comments you get on social media. That’s number one. That is not who you are, and that is absolutely critical for my kids, and I think that’s a really important thing for all kids, given the world they live in.
Number two: it’s really important that we’re able to communicate with key people in our lives; not just through the good times but when life decides to kick us up the backside and we’re not sure about how to deal with it and what the answer might be, it’s really helpful to reach out and ask for help.
Number three would be: There’s only one person that you need to get acceptance from, and one opinion that you need to value the most, and that’s your own. Don’t waste your time trying to please other people, or get approval from others. Learn to accept and love yourself.
Four: I say this to my girls, and that is, don’t throw friendship around. It’s really important that you have an expectation of how people should treat you fairly, especially as a young girl turning into a teenager.
And number five, now that I think about it, and this one’s specially for my son: there’s an appropriate way that we speak to and treat women, and ladies in our life, and our sisters. I’m consciously and consistently trying to educate my son on this. That’d be my top five…
DL: That’s a pretty handy top five, mate, off the top of your head!
WS: Mate, it’s funny – well, not funny – but there’s a lot of this stuff going on at home for us, and whether that’s by choice or situation, these are the conversations we’re having at home all the time, so I guess it’s just the fact that they’re real for us at the moment.
DL: You’re living it, so it’s there. No worries. I’ll wind it up there, mate, keep up the great work.
WS: No problems, mate. You too.