10 September 2020

R U OK? Day: Canberra Royals captain Ben Johnston is tackling suicide prevention head-on

| Hannah Sparks
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Canberra Royals captain Ben Johnston

Canberra Royals captain Ben Johnston became an R U OK? community ambassador three years ago after a fellow player died by suicide. Photo: Supplied.

Talking about suicide is far from easy and getting a bunch of rugby blokes to open up about how they’re feeling is even harder, but Canberra Royals captain Ben Johnston is tackling the conversation head-on.

Mr Johnston experienced suicide at a young age. While playing for his junior club on the Far North Coast of NSW, a fellow player took his life.

“I saw the impact it had on the club, my mates at school and the community up there,” Mr Johnston said.

He isn’t alone. Some 48 per cent of NSW adults (about 3.1 million people) report knowing someone who has died by suicide, according to the latest figures from Suicide Prevention Australia.

Three years ago, Mr Johnston became an R U OK? community ambassador. His goal has been to encourage conversations about mental wellbeing at the Canberra Royals rugby club and in the Canberra community.

“I didn’t want anything like what happened at my junior club to happen at Royals,” he said.

“Growing up, suicide wasn’t something that was spoken about and in the rugby environment, blokes aren’t inclined to talk about their feelings if they’re struggling.

“What I’ve been speaking to my club about is opening the door for conversations with people who are struggling and making people feel comfortable to reach out if they are struggling. I’ve also been giving people around the club and community the tools to notice if something isn’t going so well, to ask the question, are you okay and what to do if they’re not.”

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That’s the message of this year’s R U OK? Day: there’s more to say after asking R U OK?

“If the answer is no, it’s important to listen, encourage action and check-in again,” Mr Johnston said.

“It’s all well and good asking the question, but the answer could be ‘no’, so you need to be willing to sit and listen and talk to those people who might be struggling. Let them get whatever is on their chest off their chest, but then also encourage action and let them come up with their own solution rather than tell them what to do. Then let them know you’ll check in again, to see how they’ve been doing since your last conversation.”

Like many events in 2020, many of the R U OK? Day events that raise awareness and funds for suicide prevention have also been impacted by COVID-19.

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In response, the R U OK? charity has shifted its resources and events online.

The suicide prevention charity’s campaign manager Steven Satour will be speaking today, from 1:00 pm to 2:00 pm at the ‘Australia at Home’ event – an online conversation about R U OK? experiences, why R U OK? works and what to say if someone says they’re not okay.

The panel discussion will also include R U OK? CEO Katherine Newton, expert advisor Alan Woodward and community ambassador Lisa Nichols.

“With something as critical as the R U OK? conversation, we’ve had to look at ways to continue during the pandemic. As a result, we’ve seen a dramatic increase in online events,” Mr Satour said.

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The Royals captain has also been out and about raising awareness by speaking to a Canberra school on Wednesday, a construction company on Thursday and joining R U OK? online events.

R U OK? Day has never been more important for Canberrans after months of bushfires, hail storms and now the COVID-19 pandemic, Mr Satour said.

Worryingly, the number of people who are taking their lives has increased during the pandemic, Mr Satour said.

One of the main problems has been the wait time for people to access overwhelmed psychology and counselling services, Mr Satour said.

“That’s where R U OK? conversations can help because it’s about talking to people in your circle and how to stop it at the start, how to change someone’s perception about what’s happening to them, let them voice their concerns and give you a sense of their level of anxiety.”

Find out how to start a conversation and more suicide prevention resources at www.ruok.org.au.

If you or someone you know has been affected by this story or are experiencing a personal crisis, contact Lifeline Australia on 13 11 14.

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