Changing the Way Society Views Mental Illness
Featured Guest: Sam Webb
Today, I’m excited to bring you our first international guest, Sam Webb. Based in Sydney, Australia, he serves as the co-founder of Livin, a non-profit organization changing the way society looks at mental illness. Sam joined us via Skype to share why Livin was founded, explain how Livin inspires others to speak up, and discuss some cultural differences and similarities between Australia and America when it comes to mental health.
David Condos: Welcome to another episode of Recovery Unscripted, I’m David Condos, and this podcast is powered by Foundations Recovery Network. Today I’m excited to bring you our first international guest, Sam Webb. Based in Sydney, Australia, he serves as the co-founder of Livin, a nonprofit organization changing the way society looks at mental Illness. Sam joined us via Skype to share why Livin was founded, explain how Livin inspires others to speak up and discuss some cultural differences and similarities between Australia and America when it comes to mental health. Now, here’s Sam.
David: All right, well, I’m here with Sam Webb. Thank you for being with us today, Sam.
Sam Webb: David, thank you very much. Extremely grateful to be featuring on recovery unscripted and hopefully help spread a positive message to everyone out there listening.
David: All right, let’s start off by having you tell us a bit about your own story and the personal connections that you’ve experienced with mental illness.
Sam: David, mental illness has been something that’s touched me in more ways than one from my family and through various friends throughout my life, and I can talk from living proof here. And growing up, I was like most kids – loved sports, I was high functioning and from an outsider looking in, I had a good life. I had nothing to complain about. From my own personal experiences, I was diagnosed with a mental health challenge, I like to call it, that was around anxiety and depression, and I didn’t really even know how to deal with it. I didn’t even know what it looked like again, I didn’t know how to articulate it.
For me, I hid it very well from most of my friends and family, and it wasn’t until the passing of a very good friend by the name of Dwayne Lally where I realized how serious this problem is. He was a lot like me in a lot of ways. From an outsider looking in, he looked like he was killing it, he was crushing work, crushing life, life’s goals look great. It looked like he was doing extremely well he had it all together.
The people like Dwayne and the people like myself and many other people that I’m friends with that I’ve come across in my lifetime so far that they look like they’ve got everything together but they’re battling demons. It’s undiagnosed generally because of the stigma that’s attached to mental health and the stigma is what kept Dwayne quiet. Dwayne told me everything was all good that night but an hour and a half later that was the last he was seen that night on September 15th, 2013 It would be a night I’ll never forget. It wakes you up to realize you have to do something about it.
Casey Lyons and myself started the Livin organization in memory of Dwayne and here we are today just under four years new. I hope what I’ve learned today and up until now I can use to help positively change people’s lives and I’m extremely grateful to be here in many ways.
David: For people who aren’t familiar, could you give a quick introduction to Livin’s mission today?
Sam: Yes, definitely. Livin is a nonprofit charity. It’s all about changing the way the world understands, perceives and interprets mental health. We concentrate on three things. We host a lot of events generally around fitness and well-being because it’s correlation with positive mental health. We do fashion, so we created our own fashion apparel line and that’s from infant’s onesies through to gym apparel, active wear through the winter gear for ladies and gentlemen, which we sell now globally. They wear our mantra “it ain’t weak to speak” which basically gets this conversation started. The shirts and apparel is our innovative way of giving people a reason ask, hang on what’s Livin about? What is “it ain’t weak to speak”? Tell me more about this.
It gives people that confidence to speak up on it and talk about their problems. We’re trying to make the mental health space sexy. We want to make this a dinner table conversation. We want to make this something that people aren’t shy to talk about. We want to make this a topic people don’t judge someone when they tell them they’re depressed or they need help, we want this to be like any other illness.
When we tell someone we’ve sprained their ankle or I’ve got diabetes, we want to make this the same level as those types of youngsters because I believe it should and we’re trying to normalize it. Last but definitely not least and probably the most important thing in what we’re trying to do is education. As a sufferer like myself, I couldn’t even articulate it to the people that were closest to me, I’d often keep quiet, our goal with education is to give people that greater understanding and increase mental health literacy for young people in particular at schools, then how you can help yourself and possibly someone in your life, your friend, your family member or might even be a stranger. That’s our goal, that’s our mission.
David: I’m glad you brought up education, I noticed on your website that that was a big part of what you guys do. Do you feel like that is the main piece that needs to change in order for people to be less resistant to talk about mental health? Is that the big part of it or what else might be going on?
Sam: I think so. Look, it certainly wouldn’t be the only area but it’s a big part of the area. When I’m at school we never had people coming in to tell us what mental health looked like and what does someone who might be suffering from sadness versus someone who might be depressed, what’s the difference? Who would you speak to if you were worried about yourself or someone else? I had no idea about any of this. It’s not that people don’t care about other people. They don’t want to help, it’s just that we’re ignorant naturally. We’re ignorant in this topic and we’re not born knowing these answers. We’re trying to give people the answers that don’t have them and we’re trying to create hope to the people that they’re in silence, hopefully we’re doing that.
David: You were saying the education part of your mission you’re going around to a lot of schools, is that the main part of what you’re doing with that? What else education-wise?
Sam: I’m in the US at the moment. I’m speaking a few schools, universities, expos. Back in Australia it’s very similar. We speak at schools, workplaces, corporates, sporting clubs. The idea about it is just to give people the understanding and the tools to be able to identify these discrepancies in their own life or maybe someone else’s because a lot of the time if you’re educated and you can see some of the warning signs, and you’re armored with this information, you can certainly make a positive change in someone’s life if not yourself.
David: In your view, why is it so hard for people to talk about mental illness even though we all know like how serious it can end up being? Why is it so hard?
Sam: Again, when I was diagnosed with anxiety I didn’t really understand what it was all about. I felt uncomfortable, agitated, I felt panicky and all these symptoms but I often didn’t really know what it was. I was just thinking maybe it was just “this is just Sam Webb.” I didn’t think that this might have been an illness or this might have been something that I could actually speak to someone about and get help.
It’s certainly all about speaking up and seeking help and it’s easier said than done. Stigma is a big part of what’s keeping people quiet, three out of every four people who suffer or who are suffering I should say with a mental illness aren’t seeking help. People feel like they’re getting judged, people might feel especially in the workplace their jobs on the line if they speak up. They feel like they’re a liability. For example, kids at school might get bullied because they’re walking into a nurse’s office or guidance counselor. “What is my friend going to think of me?”
On the flip side, a lot of people become so well at hiding, they get misdiagnosed or they get told they’ve got something else and there’s other reasons as well. Lack of services especially for your remote communities, a lot of the services aren’t available. There’s a lot of different areas but from a Livin standpoint, what we’re trying to focus on is changing the feeling about mental health, making it cool to be not okay, making it acceptable to be suffering.
David: I’m glad you brought up the stigma as well. I know with Heroes in Recovery that that’s their mission is breaking the stigma and finding new ways to do that. What are some things that you guys have seen success went down in Australia for breaking the stigma on a larger scale?
Sam: Obviously, collaboration and that’s why we’re so grateful to be working with Heroes. It’s all about working, putting your hand up and asking for help and a strategy that it’s very successful is. When you’ve got very big profiles and big movements that people look up to or people might look up to actors or professional sports stars and if these people are speaking openly about their mental health or their challenges or they’re advocating for charity or mental health, it gives a lot of people that hope that they’re looking for because it normalizes it a bit more.
Mental illness isn’t something that just decides to pick a certain demographic. This affects everyone. We’re seeing it with Robin Williams and we’ve seen it with sports stars. The big change is when it comes collectively as a collaborative team but again in terms of strategies looking outside the box, if we can get the right influences behind it that have a genuine connection to the cause, that also goes a long way now especially in the media. We had Chris Hemsworth, the actor. I’m sure you heard of who Chris Hemsworth is, he’s an Australian. He helped us spread our message by getting behind out our charity and a lot of people who look up people like Chris and look up to people like actors and celebrities. If these guys are living the great life, they’re accepting that it’s okay to speak up, maybe that’s all it takes for some people to seek help.
David: Like you said, you do a lot of speaking and traveling, and you’re actually in America right now doing some speaking. What have you been seeing on your travels? Anything eye-opening that you’ve seen?
Sam: In Charleston, West Virginia, a couple of nights ago we had an open forum with questions and answers offered. And there would have been 40 people in a crowd of 300 get up and tell their stories. It was amazing to see so many people find hope in what we had to say to give them confidence to get up and talk about their issues and how they deal with them and what works for them and what doesn’t work for them. This problem it’s common. It’s just the way of life and in Australia especially when losing lots of people to suicide, and the numbers aren’t getting any smaller. A goal coming into this was to change one life and save one life but our mission is far greater than that now. I want to save as many lives as I possibly can and I’m not going to take any no for an answer.
David: Just curious, as you’re traveling, I assume you do a lot of speaking with Australian crowds as well and interacting with them. As you’re traveling to America or other countries around the world, what are some cultural differences you see related to the stigma around mental illness and all that? Are there some differences that you see in the cultures?
Sam: Definitely, there’s massive differences. If you’re looking at Indigenous Australians versus Western society, it’s completely different vision, values, mission – spiritual and all that sort of stuff. I know America for example versus Australia there’s – I find even more of a stigma over here. Mental health isn’t spoken about as much over here as it is back in Oz.
We’ve got a lot more advocacy work, I find a lot more people on the ground grassroots getting out there and sharing their stories and that that’s all part of cultural changes and how people are brought up and everyone’s different and especially for males in particular it’s part of our identity. We’re meant to be the strong ones that don’t you know fail and we don’t give in and we’re not meant to crumble, we’re not meant to cry. But we’re born into our subconscious at a very young age and you grow old and you don’t know anything different. So that’s what’s holding a lot of these emotions back. As far as cultural shock from differences, there is a difference but I think one thing that’s pretty common is the stigma and what keeps people quiet.
A lot of people we deal with say “I wish I’d come to you guys sooner, I wish you guys had come and spoke to us sooner, it would have made sense these were the warning signs I’ve had for the last three years and I thought it was just normal. I didn’t know anything better, so I just lived with it I just sucked it up and I just carried on with my life.”
David: That’s another great reason to speak up and talk with other people about what’s going on inside is because if you’re keeping it inside you’re in your own little bubble and if you’ve grown up with whatever you’re experiencing then that’s what seems normal to you. It’s tough to get that perspective without talking to someone else as well.
Sam: Definitely, I couldn’t agree with you more. You know and I’m learning every day. I don’t know everything. There’s a lot of things that I learn every single day. I learn when I speak, when I speak and ask questions to audiences, I’m essentially learning and learning a great deal of information and that’s what I want to do because this starts with the people and when people are ready and they’ve found that time in their life where they’re comfortable to actually reach out and put their hand up for help, it will be the best thing that they’ve ever done.
What I always say is be patient and what I mean by the patience – if you put your hand up, it takes some people years, it takes people a lot of time sometimes to speak up and ask for help because it’s daunting, man. It’s scary but when they actually do it, they might get thrown to the curb. They might get bad advice, they might get a very unreliable doctor or someone that they just don’t connect with and therefore they’re like, “Well I’ve gone to the top to get professional help but it doesn’t feel like these guys even understand me. I’m going to give up.” But this is not a one-size-fits-all. We need to treat this as it takes time to find the right fit.
What I always urge for anyone listening is to have patience, give yourself patience give yourself time because there’s a vast majority of doctors, support workers, groups, tools, people that want to help and that will help. It’s just finding the right fit for yourself because what worked for me certainly doesn’t mean it’s going to work for everyone else that I preached to.
David: Moving from the big picture level down to individual level what are some pieces of advice that you might offer to someone who is a family member or friend who sees a loved one who might be struggling with mental health or suicide ideation?
Sam: The biggest advice I could give is, if you’re ever in doubt, reach out. Reach out and ask. Never be afraid to ask someone honestly how they’re doing and listen with intent to make an impact and listen properly. I think that is the biggest thing I could take away from this. A lot of people listen with the intent to get past the first question. Every day we ask people, “Hi, how you doing?” A lot of time we don’t really care, we just get past that. Just ask questions, just listen and if you don’t know the answer that’s okay you’re not meant to know the answers.
No one has the answers to everything no one in this world knows everything about anything, if you don’t know put your hand up and ask but don’t be closed-minded on this be open-minded I think a lot of people look for the obvious signs and symptoms but look outside that because people are really good at hiding their real emotions and they’re great at putting a facade and a mask on. I think having an open mind and thinking outside the box is what’s going to make it be difference here.
David: I think that uncomfortable feeling in those conversations is another symptom of the stigma, because it really is uncomfortable to talk about even as a listener.
Sam: Yes, a lot of people are scared. We ask people all the time right, “how are you feeling, like actually?” And where a lot of people are so frightened to hear “I’m suffering, I’m struggling, I’m suicidal, I need help.” People are scared to hear that because they don’t feel like they’ve got the information to help someone. But you don’t have to be a doctor. Just listen. If you don’t know anything, just listen.
Just offering them support. “What’s something I can do for you what makes you feel more comfortable?” Giving people options. And someone that struggles with a mental illness often doesn’t see a lot of options, which means their hope or their light, I like to call it, in their tunnel, a tunnel vision, it’s very dim. The way to create that light and to push the darkness out is to create more options to give people options, which increases hope and increases rates of survival. Look at things like if someone you know is dealing with it right now, isn’t doing well, find out what they’re comfortable with. Find out a certain time of day they might want to talk to you about their problems.
Is there a certain time in the school yard? Is there a certain time at work? Is there a certain place at work? You know, would it make you feel more comfortable that I come with you to see a doctor? Because it’s very daunting. When I went to see my first psychologist, I was scared to hell. I didn’t know what to say. There I was walking in this place and everyone was so dry, it was intimidating. I guess giving people those options creates more hope and makes people more comfortable.
David: You guys, speaking of Livin now, you guys seem to have a lot of events and collaborations going on. Could you tell us a little bit about what’s next for Livin? What do you have coming up?
Sam: We try to take Livin into the next level. We’re going to make this global. It’s going to be a global movement and be called the Livin initiative where people from all walks of life we want to spread this mission far and wide to everywhere we possibly can and the way we do that is collaborating with other like-minded organizations and ideally we want to bring this all together with all the service providers. We want to offer help to people that don’t get help in remote locations it might look like augmented reality for example of virtual reality. That’s the future.
As positive and negative as mobile handheld devices do get, and they are at times, I really think as a growing young population, people want answers immediately. They don’t really have the resilience to wait. We need to give people solutions as soon as we possibly can. These are the areas we want to focus on in the very long future. As a short-term future, we’re looking at an apparel line in the active wear. We hope to distribute internationally and keep working with organizations on the front line. You know we’re all very humble over here. We’re very grateful of where we’re at. We wouldn’t be here without the support from all the people from all around the world so we’re very thankful and we’ll continue doing what we do our best and that’s on the ground but we’re looking forward to it.
David: All right so let’s wrap up with this final question. Everyone who chooses to serve in this arena has their own personal reasons and motivations that drive them to dedicate so much of their life to this cause. Could we end by having you sum up why helping people find recovery from mental health issues is so important to you?
Sam: I don’t want anyone to ever witness losing a friend or a family member the way I have. And if you can save one life, well, every bit of blood, sweat, tears, all the time, all the effort, all the money – that’s all irrelevant. This is about saving lives and we’ll do everything we possibly can to do that. Our last word of advice would be if you’re ever in doubt, reach out. It does get better and there’s help just around the corner.
David: Thank you for being with us today, Sam.
Sam: Thanks so much, David. Thanks to you guys at Recovery Unscripted. If anyone wants to learn more about the Livin organization, they can head to www.livin.org.
Host: Thanks again to Sam for joining us today. Now, we get to close the show by featuring another powerful story from the Heroes in Recovery community as part of our ongoing series called, “Hero of the Week.” Today’s story comes from Linda M. who shared it on herosinrecovery.com, a grassroots movement where over 1400 people have contributed their stories.
As someone in recovery from alcoholism, Linda knew first-hand the damaging effects of addiction. It came as a shock when she discovered her teenage son Ian had developed his own addiction not to alcohol, but to Kratom. With support from his family Ian went through several cycles of detox treatment and relapse. Until the addiction led him to tragically take his own life at the age of 20. Much like Sam’s goal with Livin, Linda has made it her mission to speak openly about Ian’s addiction and suicide as a tribute to her son.
She also founded the Ian Mautner Foundation which works to create awareness through education and provide peer support. As Linda says in her story, “My son is my hero, I’m not ashamed of my son and what has happened. I refuse to remain silent.”
Thank you Linda for sharing that and helping to break the stigma around addiction and mental health issues. If you would like to read Linda’s full story or share your own, visit herosinrecovery.com.
This has been the Recovery Unscripted podcast. Today we’ve heard from Sam Webb, co-founder of the non-profit organization Livin. For more about their work visit livin.org. And thank you for listening. Please take a few seconds to leave us a rating on your podcast app. Subscribe so you won’t miss any of our new episodes. See you next time.