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.
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.
“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.”