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How being on Country helped Rulla with mental health challenges

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Warning: This article talks about suicidal thoughts.

When I was born in a house at the foot of Mount Roland one winter night in northern Tasmania, my parents named me Rulla.

The story of my name is the story of the Masked Owl, which is my totem; it's the story of the protector. In our language, Palawa-Kani, Rulla means 'strong'.

I grew up in two little townships 15 minutes apart: Mole Creek and Deloraine.

We call this area Kooparoona Niara (the Great Western Tiers). Two minutes out of Mole Creek is our family native wildlife conservation sanctuary, Trowunna Wildlife Sanctuary.

The property of the park backs onto a beautiful gorge and spiritual place we call Tulampanga (Alumn Cliffs) which in our language means 'red ochre'.

I have a strong connection to this country.

My upbringing was set against a beautiful backdrop, but I had to deal with some tough challenges.

Experiencing those challenges led me to recognise we all have a responsibility to help others.

Managing life through grief

Throughout my teens, our family managed life through constant grief: aunts and uncles and grandparents passing away. One of my uncles took his own life when I was 13. There were also times where I struggled with my mental health, and I spent time in hospital after an attempt.

With help, I founded a positive mental health charity, Make Runs Maxi, when I was 24, after going through those difficulties.

It was founded with a goal to encourage all in finding purpose and fulfilment in life. The charity was named in honour of a young man from the same area I'm from, a man I coached in sports.

His name was Isaac 'Maxi' Walters and he passed away at the age of 16.

For any young person, acceptance is something we all juggle and with youth comes demands that are greater than we can handle at times.

There is great pressure to decide how our life should be by the time we're 18. As we learn with age and maturity, that is a hard decision and it and it can be detrimental to feel that pressure when we're so young.

The programs I delivered to community groups for 'Make Runs Maxi' were about shifting the negative narrative of the term 'mental health'. The focus was to engage people in the positive side of our mental health, social-emotional health and wellbeing, and what that looks like when we're at our best.

2020: A year of change

At age 27, while living and working in Adelaide and playing SANFL football with the Glenelg Football Club, I was diagnosed with T2 embryonal testicular cancer — an aggressive cancer that spread through my lymphatic system to my aorta. I had three lymph nodes cancerous that were 10mm in size; this meant I was at stage 2, almost stage 3 when I was diagnosed.

Rulla in hospital receiving treatment for cancer.
Rulla in hospital receiving treatment for cancer.(ABC: Haidarr Jones)

All of this happened throughout 2020 when the world was grappling with COVID, and I was living in Adelaide. Border restrictions meant I couldn't see my family in Tasmania. I spent nine weeks in intense chemotherapy which to date has been successful.

Fortunately, I had amazing friends, work colleagues in Adelaide and nurses at Royal Adelaide Hospital who supported me. I used many different methods to get me through, including a 25 push-up challenge every day for 25 consecutive days and a 'Note to Self' which I read every morning and every night.

This country, my country

Throughout this adversity I've been blessed to have a beautiful pocket of the globe to help centre myself and dig my feet into its soil around Kooparoona Niara.

Tulampanga, Mole Creek and Gog Range (Mount Roland) are all places I feel I belong to.

The fast-paced life of a city, the online world we're all subscribed to, drains you, it consumes your creativity and energy. I constantly feeling like I'm living in two worlds.

Rulla Kelly-Mansell swimming.
This country connects me to culture and family.(ABC: Haidarr Jones)

When I am able to be on my country away from those distractions I recharge. Connecting by swimming in a cold waterhole when all you can hear is the Meander river flowing and birds singing, hearing the noises of the land, the trees and the wind hitting you, the sky in its full lens, night and day.

I'm grateful to have an opportunity to live my life and help others through stories like this, music and genuine conversations.

Life is a beautiful experience and a magical blessing. It's just a matter of perspective.

Rulla Kelly-Mansell is a proud Tulampanga man, a presenter with ABC Adelaide, 2020 NAIDOC Tasmanian Aboriginal of The Year, a performer and musician.


Source: ABC

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