• Joe Williams playing for South Sydney Rabbitohs in 2004. (AAP)Source: AAP
Former NRL player and welterweight boxer Joe Williams tells Living Black about his struggles with mental health. He says he's speaking up about his experiences in the hope it'll help others.
Margaret Whitehouse

12 Sep 2018 - 7:02 PM  UPDATED 12 Sep 2018 - 7:24 PM

The greatest adversary Joe Williams ever faced was not on the rugby field or in the boxing ring – it was the voices in his head.

He turned to alcohol and illicit drugs in an attempt to silence the negative thoughts, before attempting to take his own life in 2012.

Suicide rates among Indigenous Australians are currently over three times higher than the rate for the rest of the nation. It is also the leading cause of death of Indigenous people aged 15-34 according to 2016 figures from the Bureau of Statistics.

And the 34-year-old Wiradjuri man almost became a part of those figures, and has been speaking and writing openly about his experiences in the hope it will help others who are struggling.

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There was one day in 2012 he considers to be the “most vivid memory of my entire life". At the time, he was playing football in Dubbo.

“It’s hard to talk about. But I speak about it everyday and it’s a tough time because it puts me directly back to where I was, and I wasn’t in a good place,” he told Living Black.

After a marriage breakdown, and a period of separation from his children, Mr Williams began to struggle with suicidal thoughts.

“I don’t blame, not one minute, the mothers of my children for our disruption in our relationship... Because I was a mental wreck," he said.

“I didn’t realise that while I was boxing, I was mentally strong."

On that day, a phone call to a friend and then his family’s support encouraged him to seek professional psychiatric help.

“That weekend, I had the most deep and meaningful and beautiful conversations with my Dad that I never had," he said.

“My Dad was always a staunch dude and I was always trying to put up a front to, I guess, make my Dad proud. But we sat there and we cried to each other.

“I started to find myself and that’s when I came to the point of realising that, you know, I’m lucky to be alive and I had a second chance to help other people."

Mr Williams has used his 'second chance' raising awareness of mental health issues within the wider community. He dedicates his time to motivational speaking at schools, juvenile detention centres and youth organisations.

One way he believes he can help, is by spreading the message of the importance of culture throughout his process of healing.

“The biggest healing for me has been the culture,” said Mr Williams.

“When you’re connecting to that, you’re bringing those old people straight into your life.

“And there’s nothing more empowering than knowing that you’ve got 65,000 years of cultural heritage and ancestors just sitting on your back, just tapping you saying, 'just one more time'."

R U OK DAY, 13 September is a national day of action dedicated to reminding people to reach out and support those potentially struggling with life.

Readers seeking support and information about suicide prevention can contact Lifeline on 13 11 14, Suicide Call Back Service 1300 659 467 and MensLine Australia 1300 78 99 78. Also Headspace Yarn safe.

Watch Living Black, Wednesdays 9pm on NITV (Ch. 34) or catch up at On Demand.