By Dan Wilkins

In 2016, 2866 people tragically lost their lives to suicide. On average seven people per day die by suicide in Australia and it is estimated a further 65,300 people attempt suicide every year. For every suicide in Australia, it’s estimated there are another 30 attempts.

The link between those terrifying statistics and mental health cannot be underestimated. The social stigma around mental health and emotional wellbeing is, at best, concerning and at worst, a major factor of the suicide number being double that of the national road toll.

Puka is a Hindi word meaning ‘genuine and authentic.’ It is the mantra of past footballer, Wayne Schwass’ social enterprise, Puka Up.

As a competitor, Schwass played almost 300 AFL games in a brilliant career with North Melbourne and the Sydney Swans that produced a premiership, three best and fairest awards and a life membership to the North Melbourne Football Club. It was, however, Schwass’ personal battle with depression and mental health that bought about Puka Up. His struggles and his ability to ‘put on the mask’ to hide his struggles from the world, much to the detriment of his own life, have led to him being a major pioneer in the mental health landscape. His subsequent realisation that being genuine and authentic, open and honest with yourself and those closest to you have motivated Schwass to inspire others to create change and keep the conversation going and the Puka Up Suicide Prevention Bike Ride was a major vehicle to achieve this.

The ride took 28 riders and ten support staff from Sydney to Melbourne. A 1433km journey – 2km for every life lost of the 2866. Puka Up partnered with The Black Dog Institute to deliver community forums in six towns along the route; Wollongong, Goulburn, Wagga Wagga, Albury, Shepparton and Ballarat. These forums were valuable opportunities sharing practical skills, tips and advice with audiences that will help local communities begin to start conversations about suicide prevention.

Traversing from the Sydney metropolis, through the incredibly picturesque Royal National Park onto the Sea Cliff Bridge and into Wollongong was the first taste for all of what this ride was to entail. New faces, new terrain and a new challenge.  As the days continued and we took in the amazing Macquarie Pass and country roads through Goulburn to Canberra and Wagga Wagga, the group started to see what this ride was about. By day four into Wagga Wagga the group had covered some 650km, with a number of climbs and temperatures reaching the mid-30’s. For a group with ages ranging from 27-63 and an even wider range of riding experience and confidence, it was clear that teamwork was going to be an incredible asset to complete the journey.

By day six we’d covered almost 900km. We had a smooth working machine, with each team member helping one another and asking for help if needed. We realised the importance of looking out for ourselves and each other. But did we understand why we were here? Was it a bike ride, or was it turning into much more?

The night of day six was to be a changing point for every member of this Puka Up ride. Unbeknownst to us we were about to find out WHY we were riding. Schwass asked each one of us to tell our story. Why we were here? Why was it important? How does this ride help anyone? Well, this experience changed my life.

Some 32 people told their stories. Some personal, some family members, some friends, some who were just there to be educated, and if the latter, they got the education of a lifetime. Stories of parents, or friends, of siblings, of uncles, or themselves. Each rider had a story, each rider had found their reason, their why, the realisation that this was not just a bike ride, this was a means to a conversation… and that conversation can save a life. Again, this was life changing.

The final two days, 242km and 210km respectively, were like nothing I’ve ever seen. Consistent, open and genuine conversations each kilometre. An ignited passion in each and every member, rider and support staff, each with a drive to stamp out the stigma via the display of vulnerability and authenticity. The understanding that for one life to change, another must stand up and be the voice. I’ve never had a more fulfilling 48 hours.

So how do you get 28 people, most who have never met, to help one another? You create safe places, where judgement is replaced entirely by trust and support. Riders looked for signs and symptoms of struggle in their compatriots. They ask if they are ok, if they need food or water. And then they ask again, and again. But what was incredible, was that riders (myself included) were ASKING for help. They identified weaknesses at certain times, and they felt they could be open and honest in the group, in the safe spaces that we, as a team, had created. And now you see how this was never about a bike ride, it’s a metaphor for life.

When you show honestly, vulnerability, when you take the mask off and show how you really feel, not how you THINK you should feel, you attract support. You attract genuine care. It’s these ideas that help push the Puka Up message forward. That no matter if you’re male, female, old or young, your ability to put your hand up and ask for help and/or be there to support others by creating a conversation can save a life.

You don’t have to ride a bike to understand this. You can apply this to any sport, any activity, any day, anywhere. Just have the conversation. Ask “Are you ok?” and if you don’t believe their answer, ask again.

I cannot stress this enough. One conversation can change a life. Let’s all set the example and ensure the stigma stops with me.

Sport 3 Tours was proud to provide the support for the 2018 ride. We believe in the message and feel honoured to be part of the team. Together we must change people’s attitude toward mental health particularly amongst men. Thank you to all the riders and support staff for creating this amazing experience.

Visit www.pukaup.com.aufor more details and join us in 2019.

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