Matthew Etherington is committed to helping others.
The 23-year-old, from Hobart, was recently awarded the St.LukesHealth Healthier Communities Award at the Tasmanian Young Achiever of the Year Awards for his efforts in assisting the disabled and disadvantaged in his community.
He was also awarded the Premier’s Young Achiever of the Year at the same ceremony.
It was his selfless dedication to others and yearning to break down the stigma of mental health that stuck out for those judging the awards this year. Matt was instrumental in facilitating the Big Issues Community Street Soccer Program in Southern Tasmania, using sport to empower and improve the lives of those in the community.
He also organised a Mental Health First Aid initiative at the University of Tasmania where more than 330 individuals learnt the importance of self-care to promote positive mental health.
Matt shares his journey with St.LukesHealth below:
1. You do a lot of volunteer work. Can you explain what you do in this area and why you like to give back to the community?
The work and advocacy I've been a part of focuses on mental health, disability support, social inclusion and youth engagement.
I want to break down the stigma and fear about mental health and provide people with the skills to overcome barriers to connectedness and social support, both for themselves and for others.
My involvement in the community began in earnest after the onset of chronic fatigue syndrome, which affects roughly a quarter of a million Australians. It can be a largely invisible condition.
My life and many of the plans I had made for the future changed dramatically. I felt lost and was thinking about suicide.
I liken it to a near-death experience, because being in such a dark place forced me to see the world differently and focus on what really matters to me.
After seeking professional help, I decided to use those experiences to support other people going through transitions in health and those caring for them.
Community work now brings me a great deal of purpose, happiness and belonging. I feel a deep connection to the many people, young and old, who want to make our community stronger, inclusive and more sustainable and that's what keeps me involved.
Through doing this, I've also gained insight and clarity about my own needs. To put it simply, helping others helps you.
2. How did you start your Mental Health First Aid Course?
After receiving seed funding from the Sandy Duncanson Social Justice Bursary, I undertook a training needs assessment through research and consulting with student groups, support services and faculty staff.
I met with members of community organisations to assess what was already being done and to improve my approach.
I made a few key observations:
1. Mental ill health impacts the university cohort particularly (about one in every four students).
2. Early intervention is essential and the most cost-effective solution for stopping the rising rates of suicide and mental ill health.
3. Students were often underprepared for the complex needs of mental ill health in their work and volunteering.
4. Accessible mental health training options were highly sought after by students.
5. At the time, Tasmania's youth suicide rate was the highest in Australia.
Once we opened the training, we were inundated with applications (200 in a week)! I went on a fund-raising tour to try and offer it to as many engaged students as possible.
From there, I received warm support from many people in the university and community and used it as a way of improving organisational understanding of student needs.
3. What are the benefits of people undergoing this training?
Trainees significantly improved in their knowledge, awareness of support services and preparedness to provide assistance to someone experiencing a mental health issue.
The training challenges a range of common myths which act as barriers to wellbeing and self-care, and empowers trainees to recognise and correct these harmful misconceptions.
More specifically, we’ve found the training helps people recognise signs and symptoms of mental ill health, approach someone to talk about it, have conversations about topics such as suicide, offer support and information as well as encourage professional and other supports.
Perhaps most importantly, the training develops trainees’ ability to listen and interact with a person experiencing mental ill health without expressing judgement.
Working in these areas requires people like myself to embrace difficult conversations and be willing to lean into feelings of discomfort and distress to help others.
Being there, listening and connecting can make a huge difference in people's lives. We try to provide people with a strengths-based approach that empowers them to be leaders themselves.
4. You’ve also played a part in the Big Issue Community Street Soccer Program, can you tell us about that?
I coach the Hobart program and I’m grateful to be a part of it.
The Big Issue is known for its magazine, but our soccer program runs around the country each week, a social inclusion initiative that uses the power of sport to change lives.
Participants get together in a safe environment, allowing them to get fit, make new friends and seek support and advice.
The program delivers social and health outcomes for people experiencing vulnerability or disadvantage, linking in with other services that address issues such as homelessness, substance abuse, family breakdown and mental illness.
We create a supportive environment to celebrate the achievements of our players, promoting participation, friendship and team spirit.
Recently we had two players attend the national tournament, and one of our players will head off soon to Cardiff joining six other Australians to represent their country in the Homeless World Cup.
5. Many people may have a great idea but don’t know where to start. What did you do to get your mental health first aid course and street soccer program off the ground? Can you provide three tips to getting started?
Getting an idea off the ground can be daunting.
However, one piece of advice I would give is that small actions can snowball.
My project evolved out of curiosity and passion through research, exchanging ideas, identifying the tools already there, bringing people on board and committing to bringing my idea into reality.
Secondly, start locally and learn by doing. You’re an expert in your own experience. If you’re affected by a problem, you can understand it in some ways better than anyone else.
You’re one of many people locally who want to be part of building solutions to the issue.
You also have the resources to identify what your community needs and how a localised solution might work.
As a result, those nearest to a problem can often be nearest to a solution.
Thirdly, learn from your mistakes with an open mind. If you can identify an area where you need to learn, you can help others do the same.
Offering to others the vulnerability of failure allows people and societies to change.
I’ve made a lot of mistakes. I’ve had to learn humility and how to address my own ignorance and prejudices, and that will be a constant process of recognising where I need to improve.
That’s relevant because growing an idea requires you to sit with the discomfort of not knowing the answers and being wrong.
Once you adopt that attitude, the honest, constructive feedback you encourage, and your ability to re-evaluate effectively, is of great value.
To describe my process simply:
- Identify a need or problem and explore what causes it.
- Identify an impact you would like to have and what it would look like.
- Research widely about what is being done and where there are gaps.
- Meet with people who are involved and build collaborative relationships.
- Decide whether you need to work inside the system or outside it.
- Get constructive feedback on your ideas and listen to it.
- Decide on the best structure to achieve maximum impact.
- Clarify your story and your values to inspire others.
- Define goals in the short, medium and long term. Knowing where you’re going will help you get there.
6. In your opinion, what are some of the health issues facing our youth?
Loneliness is a major risk factor. Young people experience many barriers for involvement, connectedness and belonging in their communities.
This is especially true as our societies are becoming less connected and more polarised.
Mental health consistently rates as the other most important issue to young people. It’s certainly the highest disease burden among young people.
Supporting people with anxiety and depression is a societal issue as well as one of relationships and family. It’s easy to understand why young people are disposed to greater mental ill health.
The future of our planet is under threat, and many things are more scarce than several decades ago, like job security and housing affordability.
The ability of our leaders and governments to recognise and respond to social issues as public health issues poses a great challenge to the wellbeing of emerging generations.
Such a mindset ensures that prevention and early intervention receive the attention and investment they deserve.
This is especially true for issues such as violence against women, social inequality and climate change.
7. Were you surprised to be named St.LukesHealth Healthier Communities Award recipient and then be named the Tasmanian Young Achiever of the Year?
Receiving the awards was a wonderful surprise and deeply humbling – especially among so many people I respect.
It was an affirmation that the work we've been doing is worthwhile.
I was grateful to accept it on behalf of the programs I've been involved in, and for the opportunity to share stories and spread important messages.
The stories of all the young people on the night filled me with hope at a time when we have many intractable issues to overcome as a society.
I'm certain each will inspire many more to contribute their insight and passion to causes they care about.
8. What are your goals in the next 12 months?
I’m looking to consult with as many people as will chat with me! I’d love to encourage a similar mental health training model in high schools and ensure the peer support model is sustained into the future.
I’ll be graduating hopefully in July of 2020, so much will change then.
9. With all your work within the community, what do you do to take time out for yourself?
One of my other personal goals is self-care, always important, while I find community work rewarding and enjoyable.
That said, attending community events is a favourite thing to do.
Many of the things I need to have for self-care, I only notice when I don’t make time for them. That includes time with friends and family as well as exercise.
One thing I particularly love to do is write music journalism, particularly highlighting local artists – a meeting between two things I love. I also meditate as often as I can!
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