EXCLUSIVE

Inglis lesson: GI spills the tea about bipolar to smash the stigma

This is my story, it's noone else's.

It's taken a while for Greg Inglis to peel back the cloak and own his struggle with mental illness.

While his teammates sensed something was 'different' about Greg early on in his career - his boundless energy, his hyper-focus, his subtle ebbs - he kept his cards close to his chest.

"I just always explained that I was a morning person and left it at that," Greg told the Guardian News today, with a broad smile.

It's quite a difficult feat to work out what's 'normal' when your life is anything but.

The soaring highs of a footy career which earned him the reputation as one of the very best in the business, were met by many challenging lows, including a debilitating ACL injury, a dependence on alcohol, a drink-driving and speeding charge which cost him his Australian captaincy, and an unexpected early retirement last year.

It would be easy enough to explain away his fluctuating moods as a natural reaction to the enormous pressure and media scrutiny he was under for so much of his life.

"I moved away from here and my family at 15, and I was forced to become a man before I was even a teenager properly," he said.

But there was so much more going on under the surface that not even Greg understood.

My way of escape was to not tell anyone what was happening to me, and go to training - training was everything.

And after over a decade of silently weathering the storm inside, Greg finally heard the words 'Bipolar II Disorder'.

It was an alien term - at that stage he knew noone who'd ever been diagnosed with the mood disorder.

"The first conversation I had with a professional was very hard - I was emotionally closed off," he said.

"But in order to get help you have to let yourself be vulnerable, put down your walls, and be honest with yourself."

The path to self-awareness and appropriate treatment was not a linear path for GI - it almost never is.

"Some struggles and some challenges will never go away," he said.

But today, in front of a sea of adoring local kids at Macksville, he proved just how far he's come on that journey, and also what a role model truly is.

Today, the Nambucca Valley's golden boy launched his Goanna Academy in the place that's given him "so much joy", with an express aim of starting a conversation about mental health and wearing away the stigma attached to it.

The idea for the academy was hatched around a camp fire out the back of Bowra with mates over Christmas.

"There's different ways you can give back to the community. But I realised I can do that by telling my story and being honest about my own mental health," he said.

"This is me. This is my life - I can't hide it. So it's better to be honest and hopefully that will help someone else.

"The more conversations I can get started about it, the better."

What is bipolar disorder?

Bipolar disorder is a life-long mental health condition that features pronounced mood swings.

People with the mood disorder experience times of low mood (clinical depression) and times of 'high' or elevated mood or irritability (mania, or hypomania which is a less intense type of mania).

These episodes last at least a week and affect the way a person thinks, feels and acts, which often affects work, study and relationships.

Bipolar Australia.org.au states the condition was formerly known as manic depression, and the Australian Bureau of Statistics reports that it affects nearly 3% of the population. Chances are you know someone with bipolar disorder.

According to the Black Dog Institute, bipolar disorder is largely inherited through genetics, and can be triggered by factors including stress, pregnancy, and illicit drug use.

According to Headspace, most people who develop bipolar disorder will have experienced symptoms by the age of 25.

"The experience of bipolar disorder is different for everyone. Although some people have only one or two episodes and then never have another one, some people have several episodes close together. Many people have years without symptoms between episodes of becoming unwell, living full productive lives," the Headpsace website says.

Bipolar disorder is a life-long condition, but with the right help, treatment, and understanding, it is entirely manageable.

For more information, including the differences between Bipolar I and II, click on these links:

The clinic's impact

Today's academy was capped at 200 spots due to COVID safety protocols.

Interest in the free program was so high the website crashed forty minutes after registrations opened. And all spots were filled within 24 hours by kids from all over the Mid North Coast and Coffs Coast regions.

The recruits were split into two groups: the youngest worked on skills and drills, supported by the Bowra Tigers and NRL staff; the high school-aged kids had a D&M with GI about mental health.

It's not easy to get a large group of teens to engage for an extended period of time.

But today, you could have heard a pin drop as thirty or more kids hung off his every word.

And the questions that came after the talk were both astute and proved how deeply the message had cut through.

Thirteen-year-old Arjay from Coffs Harbour said he got a lot out of the day.

"I really like how he broke it down for us what you can do to get help," he said.

If anyone ever needs my help I'll know what I can do for them.

Fourteen-year-olds Eligh and Henry from Woolgoolga said they know mates who probably could use GI's life lessons. But they both got something out of it too.

"It was really powerful to learn that even from a young age - like 13 or 14 - you can make decisions that will impact your life," Eligh said.

"There can sometimes be two paths, and you could choose to go down either one and it could change the rest of your life."

Henry was sure that Greg's message was a force for good in the world and would help to make it just that little bit easier to talk about mental health.

"A lot of people look up to him, especially ones that play footy. And if he's doing it, then they can too," he said.

Longtime friend Shane 'Richo" Richardson said GI was always able to reach people and communities that others simply couldn't.

"That's the power of Greg Inglis - that's what he wants to use," he said.

"When he finished football he thought 'what can I do? what is my purpose?'. To see him get out there today means a lot to me, but it means a hell of a lot to Greg - it's cathartic for him.

"And we'll get better - this is just the first one."

There are plans to roll out the Goanna Academy to communities up and down the coast eventually. But with GI heading off to the UK in December, the next year's worth of clinics will have to be done remotely.

For now, it's inspiring to know that there are conversations about to begin all over our region - in schools, in playgrounds, online - that could help save a young life or two. And all it took was an Inglis lesson.

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