The Key to Getting Life Back on Track
24 April 2017 at 8:58 am
Anthony Hart is the founder of LifeBACK, a not for profit that aims to reduce male suicide by empowering men to approach mental illness head on. He is this week’s Changemaker.
LifeBACK’s mission is to help bring about a significant reduction in the rate of male suicide in Australia.
The organisation provides a LifeBACK tracker tool which can be used to help face life’s challenges head on.
The tracker, currently available as a booklet but soon to become an app, is based on principles discovered by Hart after a period of anxiety and depression led him to what he calls the lowest point of his life.
To get his life back on track Hart, who runs eight PETstock franchises in Adelaide with his brother Nick and father Jeff, focused on increasing exercise, sleep, talk and removing alcohol which also benefited his mental wellbeing.
He has since developed a passion for sharing his story and the lessons he learned in recovery to give men a tool they can use when confronted with mental health challenges.
In this week’s Changemaker, Hart talks candidly about how mental illness almost cost him his life, the tools he used to get back on track and how a challenge to help him face his fear of public speaking led him to starting his own not for profit.
What is your personal experience with mental illness?
Around 19 years ago, aged 23, I left to go exploring South East Asia with a close mate of mine Corey. After only two weeks I met a beautiful girl Zoe, who is now my wife. We returned to Adelaide initially but did not settle back into our home town and quickly moved over to Sydney. We then decided to travel back to London to live for three years. It was there I helped run a successful car business importing brand new cars from Europe into the UK. Cutting a long story short I enjoyed three great years, earned lots of money, fortunately, enabling Zoe and I to purchase a house both in Adelaide and in addition in England.
In early 2003, I remember receiving an email from a mate in Adelaide, who was enjoying a BBQ with friends in the sunshine and I thought to myself: “What am I doing in the UK living and working 24/7 in the wet and cold?” Although enjoying the UK, at 28 years of age I resigned and returned to Adelaide to live. The first month was fantastic, catching up with old friends, getting out and enjoying the sunshine, eventually settling back to normality. But gradually over five months, I didn’t realise it at the time, but I was slowly starting to become unhappy, missing my work and life in the UK. I started to lose my confidence and self-esteem.
My decision-making became poor, sleeping patterns wavered and I struggled to sleep. Very quickly, I avoided going out socially, because I would start to compare myself, like we all do, to my network and what my peers were doing etc. The male thing being that you don’t talk about your mental health and certainly don’t open up to your friends about it, I kept my feelings and thoughts private. My fiancée Zoe, and my parents knew something wasn’t right and I was encouraged to visit my GP.
I can still to this day vividly remember waiting to go into the consult room at the GP. I didn’t fully open up to my doctor as to how sick I really was and how rotten I was feeling, on a daily basis. In no way do I blame the medical process, during my first consult I was prescribed an SSRI antidepressant medication. I would have sold myself to get a “pill” which I thought would solve it all, I was on a mission. Blokes can be real “male proud”, fearing exposing a mental illness will be seen as a weakness.
Employment was the hard thing for me, I was getting jobs but they didn’t quite compare to what I’d been doing in the UK, the work had given me a real buzz professionally. Then I finally received a job offer with one of the major banks that required me to go to Sydney for four weeks training to learn the skills for the job. When I started in Sydney the medication was just starting to kick in and over eight or nine nights I couldn’t sleep. The medication just kept me up, I literally couldn’t switch off, my heart was racing as I tried to fall asleep.
It got to the stage where I was too ill to be able to absorb information and learn all this new stuff I was being trained on and it just kept me up. I returned to Adelaide on my first weekend away for my brother’s engagement party, and at that party I could remember being so deluded with tiredness, I struggled to communicate and appeared drunk.
I can remember vividly being at Adelaide Airport on the Monday morning to go back to Sydney placing my hands in my face and crying uncontrollably, I wasn’t well, and in hindsight should never have made that flight back.
I flew back to Sydney and completed Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday at the training facility. On Friday 7 November 2003, I don’t really recall what happened but I was very tired and wasn’t paying attention on the course because I hadn’t slept well for two weeks. I went back to my hotel at about 5pm, lay on the bed and I tried to get two or three hours sleep. I then decided to ring the GP. Just before 7pm that night, I rang my GP in Adelaide, but they were with a client so my call was bounced back to the doctor’s reception. I attempted calling again at 7.05pm, then I remember leaving the hotel room and going to the elevator. I pressed number 21, which is where the swimming pool was located on the roof of the hotel. I remember travelling up in the elevator, going up to the roof. I had my shorts on and think I was planning to go up there to swim. A family was having a BBQ on the rooftop, they invited me over for a sausage, I had a can of coke with the two young boys and then, stood up from the table, walked over to the edge of the balcony, looked over the edge and walked off the top of the building.
This was 14 years ago. But seven storeys down directly below, there was a jutted out courtyard with one of those canvas awnings pulled out. I splattered onto the awning, human instinct for survival kicked in and triggered me to grab onto something. I managed to grab onto the awning, smashed through it and landed on the concrete balcony floor, head first shattering significant parts of my body.
Did I remember doing it? Absolutely not. I just remember the option to pick up the phone and ring anyone to tell them how bad I was feeling was not an option – the stigma, shame, and embarrassment I felt seek help was just too much.
I am literally scared of heights. It was nothing that I premeditated. When I do my talks, I talk about trying to explain to someone who hasn’t been through a mental illness the pain. Let’s say you snap your arm clean off half way down your forearm, you can imagine the intense pain that that would feel. I live every day with very significant injuries from my accident, but the pain levels which I feel every day are insignificant in comparison to mental illness pain. For me, the fear as a bloke to seek help for a mental illness was far too great. It shouldn’t have cost me my life, I was never that sick. Suicide is the number one killer of men between 27 right through to about 45 years, it is a significant problem. In Australia, on average, 2,400 men lose their life to suicide, almost 80 per cent had never sought professional help for the illness that took their life.
How did you go from that point to starting LifeBACK and creating your LifeBACK Tracker tool?
I was in a coma for three weeks, I woke up in St Vincent’s Hospital and had no idea what had happened. I landed on the back of my head. I spent approximately 18 months in rehab just fixing up all my broken bones and re-learning many daily functions such as walking – that we take for granted – after suffering an acquired brain injury. But post accident, the fear of people finding out I suffered a mental illness vanished.
The second I got back to Adelaide, there was zero stigma for me about mental health. I reckon in the first four years during my recovery, a handful of friends would ring me and say: “Anthony can we catch up for a coffee?” They were all men and I never saw it coming. They would sit down and with strict confidentiality, share with me how sad, unhappy, anxious and depressed they were.
I wrote down the four powerful principles that I had followed routinely every day to help get my life back on track.
Out of this, I developed a four step process which I called the LifeBACK Tracker. I kept scribbling it down, fine tuning it so each and every time it was that little bit better. One day someone suggested I put it into a booklet and I formulated extra components, tracking graphs, etc. and the rest is history.
Despite this book only being released two years ago. I was practising it all those years, writing down these steps and showing my friends, because if you have friends who are going through a mental health challenge you want to help them.
I’m in a business group called Entrepreneurs’ Organisation. One of my forum goals was to overcome my fear of public speaking. My forum group said to me: “This year, you’ve got to try and do three lots of public speaking.” So that was my goal.
One of my forum members Gavin Schuster who runs a farm in Freeling had a suicide on a neighbouring farm. He asked me to run a SAVE OUR MATES Freeling Men’s Shed night, talking to the country farmers about mental health and share my story. 135 proud farmers turned up that night to hear my story and learn some valuable “take away” lessons.
How does the LifeBACK Tracker Tool work?
The LifeBACK Tracker tool will assist anyone to discover the positive effects that increased exercise, sleep, connecting and removing alcohol and recreational drugs can have on your thoughts and feelings, which in turn can dramatically affect your happiness.
There are four important steps.
Alcohol – Remove alcohol, recreational drugs and stimulants completely and you’ll find returning to a happier state of mind will be much easier to achieve.
Exercise – The second bit is the exercise component. Perform continuous cardiovascular exercise for a minimum of 40 minutes, five days a week.
Sleep – Investigate what you personally need to achieve good, quality, consistent sleep on an ongoing basis. My theory is by exercising and cutting out alcohol, getting to sleep will be far easier to achieve.
Connect, [what I call] “Friend connect” – Look at your networks and find one person that you trust and feel confident enough to openly tell them how bad you are feeling. Remember you must be brutally honest.
“Buddy sync” – So I think if you went to one of your very close friends that you can trust, they would be concerned about you and they would say “let’s keep in contact” but also check in on that person regularly.
Medical help – I suggest going to your medical professional… your GP. I’m a very strong advocate for being referred to a psychiatrist or a psychologist, they both do completely different things. I’m only talking from experience, but you’ve got to trust and be open with your GP. I did not disclose fully to the GP how bad I was feeling. Without honest, complete and full disclosure (which is of course confidential) it’s almost impossible to be successfully treated.
Certainly, females are much better at talking about these types of things with their network than men and it shows in the figures.
On average, 3,000 people lose their life to suicide each year in Australia. This is two and a half times more than the national road toll. Of those 3,000 people, 2400 are men, and of those men, nearly 80 per cent had never sought professional medical help for the illness that sadly cost them their life.
LifeBACK Tracker tracks your alcohol, exercise, sleep and connections and plots scores on your thoughts and feelings. So what it does each day, is you have to quickly ask yourself eight questions, that are generalised anxiety/depression questions. It gives you a score from one being “low anxiety or not at all”, to four being “high anxiety or very much so”.
A question might be: “You are always nervous and jittery,” “small things will trigger emotion or aggression”, “you’re rarely happy and content”. You rate yourself on these questions that I was asked by my psychologist during CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) in 2003 to 2006.
LifeBACK tracker recently won the Innovation and Collaboration – People’s Choice Award and the South Australian Startup Pitch for Cash at the Innovation Box event during Open State. What was that like?
I arrived outside the Adelaide Museum on North Terrace, walked inside a temporary building and I was given three minutes to stand up in front of 150 people in business suits to tell them what I’ve just told you in 25 minutes.
Anyway, I pitched really well, everyone had to vote via their phone via emoji’s and some ridiculous majority voted for my business over the nine other businesses in the final pitch round.
When I was standing on the stage with the head of Microsoft Australia with this award, I shook hands with Eva Balan-Vnuk from Microsoft and honestly didn’t know what I had won.
They gave me a $1,000 Westfield voucher and I was really stoked with that, I thought that’s great I can buy my wife a present. Eva then said: “No, that’s not what you’ve won. You’ve won three-years support from Microsoft, and facilities for your use at the Innovation and Collaboration Centre for six months”. They put a value of $120,000 worth of cloud space so effectively you get all the connections through winning this award and allow the app to be hosted globally on the Microsoft Azure premier hosting platform in the cloud.
I’m close to starting a crowdfunding campaign to secure the funds to build LifeBACK Tracker and I am in the final stages of assessing quotations to choose the APP Developer.
LifeBACK Tracker is 100 per cent available now in booklet format through my website for $15. We are a DGR status not for profit and all funds raised through purchasing the booklet go to raising the much needed funds to build our app.
It is such a simple tool, I haven’t invented anything, it is just tracking four simple things with simple measures to help people overcome significant life challenges, by putting them is a calmer clearer frame of mind. Whether it helps overcome the early stages of anxiety or depression, a marriage breakdown or business failure.
Recently, my logo LifeBACK Tracker have been de-stigmatised to not include any reference to it being only a mental health product. Unfortunately the minute you label it a mental health tool or depression initiative, the uptake of people taking the booklet drops off because people don’t want to be associated with having a mental illness like anxiety or depression.
Through your work what is your ultimate goal?
To help bring about a significant reduction in the rate of suicide in Australia and to wherever possible improve the wellbeing and mental health outcomes of Australians. I’d like to make people feel comfortable in asking for help and understand that there is no real difference between mental health and physical health. I’m planning to do this by developing and providing a free, easy to use LifeBACK Tracker tool they can be used free, by anyone, anywhere, anytime the moment one is confronted with a significant life challenge.
My vision for this product is overall if I can help one bit to help the suicide rate reduce that’s great. The LifeBACK Tracker tool positions itself in the early stage intervention mental health space. If I’d been given a chance to use this tool in those first two or three months of me starting to feel that way it would have made a huge difference.
When I first suffered anxiety, I had no idea how to take those first steps to recovery, a simple four principles tool like this, would have made a huge difference for me, when I was only suffering mild anxiety.
My dream is to have this LifeBACK Tracker available free to anyone anywhere, any time that they have identified as being under stress.
I joke around, and one day it may just happen, but there is the first aid box in our workplaces and it has the bandages, it has the phone numbers, I would love to be able to put a free LifeBACK tracker booklet in there.
How do you find time for yourself?
For me I got up this morning at 5am. Swimming is my thing, almost my “religion” and is something I do on average four times a week.
I enjoy golf, watching sports at the Adelaide Oval, following my kids playing sport on weekends and I absolutely love exploring new places travelling overseas.
My wife has been studying to be a midwife and she has just graduated. She is working at the Women’s and Children’s Hospital in Adelaide. She gets so embarrassed when I keep proudly telling people, but for the 2016 midwifery graduating year at Flinders University, she was dux of her graduating year. I’m just so very proud of her.
If you or anyone you know needs help, call Lifeline on 13 11 14 or visit lifeline.org.au