As Mental Health Week kicks off across Australia from 8 to 14 October, Port Adelaide Football Club ruckman Matt Lobbe and his younger brother Tom speak out about their family’s experience with depression and schizophrenia. The lads take their role of Mental Health Week Ambassadors seriously. The nationwide statistics are alarming. In Australia, an average of eight deaths a day are attributed to suicide. Of that, men are twice as likely to take their own life than women. Through sharing their deeply personal story, the brothers hope to raise to awareness and reduce stigma. We salute them for it.
Matt and Tom Lobbe have a strong sibling connection carved during their idyllic childhood in Melbourne’s Dandenong Ranges. Summer days were spent playing backyard cricket, basketball, soccer and footy challenges with little brother Caleb. Back then, Tom dreamed of being an astronaut, firefighter or gardener (he achieved the latter), while Matt had his sights set on football and recently celebrated 10 seasons with Port Adelaide.
Below the surface, Tom was battling a war of his own. The signs of mental illness started during his teens. “I was undergoing a lot of challenges,” he says. “I was quite down, quite anxious, and obsessive-compulsive. I really didn’t know what I was going through.”
He was 19 when he was diagnosed with schizophrenia. “Basically, I hear voices and have thoughts in my head and some hallucinations when I’m extremely stressed,” he says. “One of the toughest days of my life was when I was actually told that I do have schizophrenia,” he pauses. “But in saying that it was a good day too because I knew what I was up against.”
“I hear voices and have thoughts in my head and some hallucinations when I’m extremely stressed.”
He had resilience on his side. “Tom always had a learning difficulty growing up so it always made him unique,” Matt says. “He was super resilient from an early age because he had to learn a bit differently. Once he got diagnosed all that resilience just came back. He’s pretty inspiring to me and to other people as well. It’s just a great story of how you can work through something and look at all the positives of it.”
Tom describes the years following diagnosis as a journey. “I’ve had to work to get where I am now. The first two to three years were quite tough. I had to step back a bit from general activity. For the first six months I wasn’t very sociable, I wasn’t driving, I wasn’t going out much, that sort of thing. My lowest low was probably when I felt alone. The hardest thing about my illness was the times [during] the first six months where I’d try to go to sleep and all I could hear was just constant voices – like they were outside my bedroom window – and I was genuinely scared. It was tough.”
A supportive family was crucial. “I don’t think I’d be here today if I didn’t have that family and friend support behind me,” he says. “It’s almost too hard to do on your own. To be truthful, I think the best thing people with [mental] illness can do is speak up and actually say ‘Look, I need you right now, I need you to get behind me, I need you to help me, I can’t do this on my own, it’s really important that you back me in to get through it.’
Some people simply didn’t understand. “It can be quite daunting to hear,” he says. “It’s quite a full-on illness in the thick of it. I had one friend who stepped back and was quite scared for the first month or two. As he got to know me a bit more he felt better about his own health, because he’s had challenges too. I think that’s what it’s about really… it’s about removing some of the stigma and letting other people know that illness is just as illness, you know, it doesn’t change who the person is.”
The boys also watched their mum go through struggles of her own.
“Mum’s had two-and–a-half to three years of depression,” Matt says. “Like a cyclical depression. So pretty much three weeks on, three weeks off. She’s been healthy now for just over a year, which is great. Mum was always the rock of the family and could handle anything. when she got diagnosed with that it was a bit like ‘Okay this can happen to anyone and it does’. It was a bit of a shock.” Their dad is a constant source of strength, too.
Professional support was essential.
“I’ve had what you call case management,” Tom says. “I had a caseworker come in and spend time with me and teach me skills like rationalization and CBD (cognitive behavioural therapy). That really helped early on and it’s helped me today, too. When I’m having a darker day, I can kick into gear, start rationalising and get through it.”
“When I’m having a darker day, I can kick into gear, start rationalising and get through it.”
Matt supports his brother from a distance and whenever he gets home between footy commitments. The pair co-own a house in Emerald and are great mates.
“Before Tom’s ‘stuff’ I had no idea what [schizophrenia] really meant. It’s just a term that got thrown around at school. It’s turned my whole perspective of what mental illness is and actually understanding it makes such a difference. I always had an assumption that someone with a mental illness was just a bit weak or not resilient but seeing Tom and Mum deal with it has made me realise it can happen to anyone… it’s changed my whole perspective.”
The 2013 National Mental Health Commissions Contributing Life study the reasons we need to promote better attitudes to mental health in our communities. Up to 49-percent of Australians would avoid someone with a mental illness. Meanwhile, 37-percent of Australians wouldn’t employ someone with chronic schizophrenia and 23-percent wouldn’t employ someone with depression.
“Everyone just assumes it’s drug or alcohol induced,” Matt says. “And if they don’t they don’t want to ask the question… because they think it’s a big issue.” He smiles at his little bro. “My illness is not drug induced or alcohol induced,” Tom says. “It is stress induced so if I’m having a tough week it’s tough – I can’t shy away from that.”
An understanding workplace is priceless (Tom’s employers have been wonderful) but it can be especially difficult for men to tell their friends and employers. “Growing up in a footy environment, I definitely agree with the stereotype that it’s a lot harder for guys to talk up,” Matt says. “There’s this idea that you’re admitting a vulnerability and that you can’t do that.”
Tom, however, is on a mission to say it how it is.
“I’m quite passionate about expressing how you can come through it and how you can actually live a good quality of life,” Tom says. “I think you’ve got to live in the moment. You’ve got to take one day at a time. It’s been tough, but if you’ve got the right family support, right friend support and professional support you can get through it.”
These days, he runs his own gardening and landscaping business. In the future, he plans to write a book. Being honest about his struggle can be difficult but is ultimately worth the stress.
“I think you’ve got to live in the moment. You’ve got to take one day at a time.”
“Men feel like they have to be strong and tough and they can’t share so much emotion, but I think that‘s what we need to do. We actually need to express it because things boil up and get worse… If you are a farmer or a sportsman or something then the best thing you can do is seek help.”
He smiles. “Find a certain person or a certain group of people that you can actually trust. Acknowledge that you are doing it tough and need their help, talk it through and put it out there. I think that’s a good way to relieve some of the pressure that comes with a mental illness. When people actually know it’s a bit of a weight off your shoulders.”
Photos: Naomi Giatas
Video: Aaron Nassau
Need help or want to find out more? Contact Lifeline on 13 11 14, the Suicide Call Back Service on 1300 659 467, or beyondblue on 1300 22 4636. Discover what’s on for Mental Health Week 8 to 14 October.