“We need to change the stereotype in Australia of what makes a man,” Gus Worland insists. That’s a decision the TV presenter learned while travelling around the country to make Man Up, the ABC documentary that explored whether the stereotype of the strong but silent Aussie man is contributing to the fact that suicide is now the most common cause of death for men under 45.
Gus’ experience on that trip prompted him to start Gotcha4Life, a not-for-profit foundation that seeks to build mental fitness in communities across Australia to enable strong and open relationships. Here the father of three reflects on how his experiences in this area has changed not only his mind-set, but the way in which he communicates with his kids.
“I think a man should be someone who can speak openly about how they feel. If they’re going through tough times, they should be able to ask for help and allow people to rally around and support them. That’s really important.
“I only realised how important that was after losing my friend Angus to suicide. That led me to make the Man Up program on the ABC that took me around Australia. Until then, I didn’t understand quite how bad we are in this country about talking about things with gravity. We find it really hard to have a conversation outside of the weather, work, sport and maybe a bit of family. And we often make stuff up to make our lives sound better than they actually are.
“But why can’t men have conversations of gravity where we’re talking about our true feelings? At least to one other person who loves us, like our best friend? Why can’t we do that?
“I think its because we lack the emotional tools. It goes back for generations – your grandfather never taught your father how to do and so he couldn’t teach you. So we’re all just blundering around pretending that we never need help, trying to live up to this stereotype of ‘she’ll be right, mate’. But it’s killing us.
“Making Man Up changed the way I communicate with my son. When Jack used to ask me a question, if I didn’t know the answer I’d try to make it up. I didn’t want to seem like someone who didn’t know what they were talking about. To me, being a dad meant having all the answers.
“But that forced an enormous amount of pressure not only onto me, but onto Jack too. One day he asked me something and I said to him, ‘I don’t actually know mate. I’ve been making a lot of this stuff up. I’m just trying my best. I love you. But I don’t really know much 100% for sure.’
“And Jack said: ‘Thank God for that! I thought I had to come up with all the answers all the time.’
“‘Yeah,’ I said. ‘Well, that was what I thought too’.”
“So we had this really big moment in our lives where we both just relaxed a lot more in each other’s company. We’ve become more honest and it’s been really great for our relationship. For me to become more open is also good for Jack because he realises that everyone’s got dramas, everyone is going through things. With most men, if you scratch the surface, we’ve all got stuff going on. Becoming aware of that makes you realise that we’re all just part of one big dysfunctional group of people.
“Often I think suicide is caused, in part, by loneliness. If you feel lonely you’re more likely to maybe make a bad call. But if you’re realise: “I’ve got shit going on, but so does my mate. And so does my other mate. We’ve all got our dramas.” Well that’s going to make it easier to get through it.
“The real question though is how do you find out that your mate is going through a tough time in the first place? You’ve got to have a proper conversation. But to do that, you’ve got to spend time with him…
“It’s easy to get isolated from your mates when you become a dad. Suddenly, all your time is focused on looking after your wife, your family, your work. Before you know it, it’s three months since you’ve seen your mates. And once you’ve done three months it’s easy to do six months. Six months becomes a year and all of the sudden your mates aren’t there for you anymore. Or you don’t feel that you can do the same things you used to do. You don’t go to the footy. You don’t have the same conversations as before.
“That’s why you’ve got to start making plans to catch up. My wife understands that. Every three months, I go for a boys’ trip. Every Sunday morning I go for a walk with my mates. And I make sure my wife does something too.
“When I come back from those weekends, my wife says I’m a much better husband, father and person because I’ve just had that time with my mates. Yes, I’ve been able to carry on a little bit and have some fun. But it also gives me the chance to be there for them.”