Ned Hanigan at the 2019 Blues Dinner
Waratahs star and UNSW Bachelor of Science student Ned Hanigan always has home on his mind.

For the last few years there’s been barely any rain to chart at all. My old man wrote down 15 millimetres two weeks ago. It was the first time he’d pulled the pen out since July, when he recorded nine millimetres. He likes to compare it from year to year. Looking at the rainfall patterns helps him understand why grass and crops grow well in certain years. Right now, the landscape is barren with minimal grass for stock and crops that won’t yield.

Conversations in the bush always revolve around the weather. When I talk to Dad, it’s the first thing we yarn about. Most of the time I already know it hasn’t rained. Being from the land means I’m always interested in how things are going back home. It doesn’t matter where footy takes me, I’m always looking up the weather in Coonamble. Dad jokes about leaving machinery outside, to bring on the rain. He says he’ll leave the truck out with the windows down, so it gets wet. Mum hangs the washing out on cloudy days for the same reason. Dad’s diary says we got a total of 106mm of rain in 2002, another dry spell. The truck, jocks and socks didn’t get wet that year. One day I might go back. I’ll keep the book open.

A Feeling That’s Hard to Shake

When the rain doesn’t fall it can be a dark, deep, terrible spiral. You have farmers whose grandfather and father grew up working the same property, it’s been in the family for generations. Then they go through a drought. They might be doing the same thing that the generations before them have done, but the farm is disintegrating in front of them. The dread sets in. ‘I can’t provide for my family. I can’t live with myself. If I let this farm go what would the two people that I looked up to most in my childhood think?’ If they start asking themselves questions like this, the stresses can become too much. I can relate to farmers feeling that way and I think that can be hard to shake. Even though farmers could be thinking, ‘I’ll go and talk to someone, try to get better,’ they go home, lay down in bed and know in the back of their mind that there might not be any answers except for rain.

I’ve been supporting the efforts of batyr and the NSW Positive Rugby Foundation and their Get Talkin’ initiative. It is an excellent platform that facilitates discussion between rural Australians to open up about the struggles they are dealing with. The initiative has set up workshops in both rural and metropolitan areas. Where people come together under the guidance of a facilitator, and a speaker who shares their own hardships. This seems to ease the stigma, where one person sharing their own struggles allows others to empathise, emotional connections to be formed and the conversation opens. People feel comfortable when they realise others may be in similar circumstances, or at the very least are also fighting some personal battles. 

I think beginning this conversation in the setting of a rugby club is a great way to further break down the stigma attached to mental health. In rugby clubs you can have the mentality of big ‘tough’ players and opportunities are rare to talk about personal issues. But being able to sit in a club, surrounded by like-minded people who are opening up, can make people feel comfortable and draw them in. The rugby community is an extremely strong one, so it’s great to take that shared interest in sport and build a supportive alliance that openly discusses mental health.

My Message

It was drilled into me from an early age, being able to say ‘g’day’ to people. But there is a pretty big difference between saying hello to someone and delving into how they feel deep down. You go up and down throughout life. I feel fortunate that I haven’t experienced one of those lows. I’ve had people very close to me struggle, though. This is my message: finding the strength to feel comfortable enough to tell a person you care about them, and you want what’s best for them, it gives them the confidence to open the doors for a two-way conversation. If the person feels that they can trust you, you can go from there. I think the first step will always be the hardest one, because you’re not sure how people are going to take it and there is obviously still a stigma attached to these types of conversations.

But it’s important to find the strength to open a conversation. You don’t have to ask, ‘What’s wrong?’, or, ‘Are you okay?’, but you can tell the person, ‘I just want you to know that I care about you. I want what’s best for you and I just want you to know I’m here for you.’This gives them the opportunity, whether right away or in the future, to ask for help or have a chat.

In my opinion, the most important thing for someone who’s in a situation where they need help or they’re struggling is to be able to find the strength, the courage, to talk to anybody, whether it’s a professional or a friend. The best way to shake a stigma is to go on the front foot and the awkwardness alleviates very quickly. These conversations shouldn’t be awkward, because they tell someone that you’re concerned about them and that you care about them. It’s important to push through perceived awkwardness, for the right comment at the right time could change someone’s entire life.

When the rain doesn’t come, the constant pressure can be hard to escape. Being involved in a rugby club can take peoples’ minds off it all. It connects them with old friends who have shared experiences. Whether there are 30 people in a room or 300 at a game, you’ll become aware that you aren’t the only one that feels ‘down’.

What the Country Jersey Means to Me

I was playing a game in Brisbane and a guy from Armidale who’s now working in Brisbane presented us with the country jersey. We started talking about a bloke who used to coach me in under-11s at Coonabarabran. He died by suicide just a couple of weeks earlier. Although it’s incredibly tragic, it’s not uncommon, which is terrible. That’s why I feel this Positive Rugby campaign is so important. It might be all someone needs, coming in, hearing someone else talk about it and being able to relate to it. That might be what my old coach needed to grasp, that he wasn’t alone.

I was back home three weeks ago. I don’t get to go often. The closest I’ve been to home playing rugby was round one of the NRC in Dubbo, for a city-country game. It was such a good weekend. There were so many people, rocking up from all over. Coonamble, Warren, Gulargambone, Walgett, Bourke, you name it. I feel privileged to don the country jersey. It means a lot to me and I know it means plenty to the blokes I’m playing with, and the people out in the bush. It’s humbling to represent the people that you know have supported you. I feel like I try to represent them the best I can, whatever jersey I wear, but particularly the country jersey.

‘I Knew a Boy From the Bush’

Sometimes you don’t achieve the goals you set and that can be very difficult. There have been times where I’ve put so much pressure on myself and it’s been hard to understand how things didn’t pan out the way I wanted. But they’re just goals, not values. Values are what define us; they are what make us have another crack when you get knocked down.

I knew a boy from the bush, he’s grown up now but when he was six he swam the 50m freestyle in Sydney, at the state championships. It was his only event that day and when he dived in he lost his cap, which he’d never worn before. He stopped swimming momentarily, grabbed the cap, and swam on. The boy came dead last and still thought it was a great trip to Sydney, even though the swimming hadn’t gone well.

Four years later the same boy came back and won the 50m freestyle and four other events. I’d ask the question: when was the boy more content with himself – at age 6 or 11? His values had remained the same but the goals he set for himself had changed. It shows success can mean different things, depending on how you choose to look at it.

I’m lucky. I’ve got a close circle of people that I trust. I trust their opinions and it’s important, particularly as athletes, to have people like that because we criticise ourselves so much. We’re criticised by others and sometimes you forget to recognise when things are good and to maintain a balance in life.

If this story has brought up strong feelings for you, please call Lifeline on 13 11 14, Kids Helpline on 1800 55 1800, the Suicide Call Back Service on 1300 659 46 or MensLine Australia on 1300 789 979.