Climbing the Sydney Harbour Bridge is one thing but when a group of men stand at the top of the span doing the Haka it’s bound to get tongues wagging. And that’s perfectly fine with Leon Ruri, the founder of Haka for Life. More men sharing their stories, plenty of community engagement and a reduction in the suicide rate.
“The Bridge Climb was pretty special and made for terrific YouTube footage. We received lots of ‘views’ and ‘shares’! That sort of thing had never been done before and it followed hard on the heels of the Haka we did at the Anzac Day Service in King’s Park last year,” Leon said.
“We’re consulting with the RSL for this year’s event and we’re also speaking with Noongar elders to see if they would like to perform a Corrobboree as part of the ceremony. The Department of Veterans’ Affairs is always looking for new initiatives to address the terrible legacy of PTSD and this will be a wonderful opportunity to celebrate the fact that men are finally finding their voices and raise awareness of these issues.”
Loud and proud
Leon is committed to encouraging men to ‘open up’ and express themselves in a strong and passionate way.
“The Haka is a perfect vehicle for addressing the awful silences surrounding mental illness and suicide. It’s a full bodily expression of open and honest communication using the voice, body, muscles – everything!”
“We all know about the stigma attached to mental illness but surely we’ve gone beyond the point of it being acceptable that so many men are still dying in silence? The destructive internal conversations that drive men to take their own lives need to be replaced by open, healthy engagement with supportive communities. And it’s also crucial that men start to see that the services set up to help them are non-threatening, non-judgemental and passionate about helping them to live better lives.”
Leon, by his own admission, led a troubled and self-destructive life before he decided that enough was enough and changes were needed.
“I’m quite comfortable saying, ‘did I have a problem with drugs and alcohol?’ ‘Yes, I did.’ ‘Did I have a gambling problem?’ ‘Yes, I did.’ They were coping mechanisms but they weren’t making me a particularly admirable person or a very good father. My marriage broke down, I was a recreational user of ice and I was starting to get into trouble with the police so it wasn’t entirely surprising that I drifted into depression and suicidal thoughts.”
Moving on with life
“When I started exploring these issues in my own life I began to understand how I was put together and that it was possible to turn things around. I acknowledged my past behaviour but I refused to let it define me or shape the rest of my life.”
“In the end I felt compelled to reflect on my own behaviour and ask for help. There are so many stories of men struggling with life and I was one of them. It’s a big problem in my own Maori culture but it encompasses all men. And women too, of course.”
“We need to do something urgently when six men and two women every day in Australia feel the only option is to take their own life.”
The entire Haka for Life enterprise is a one-man band with Leon providing the funding and managing the website.
“I work as a union organiser in the transport sector, which is a good thing because it puts me in touch with a lot of men, and I’m a single father with four teenage children. I’m trying to set up funding to keep the momentum going but at the moment it’s very much a labour of love.”
“The website is being revamped and we’re going to have everything from quick and easy menus presented by a chef to videos of exercise programs and contact details for ongoing emotional support.”
For Leon Ruri and Haka for Life it’s all about fostering healthy conversations about mental illness with as many people as possible.
“What I’m doing with Haka for Life is encouraging men to take action and stand up for living a good life that empowers them and nurtures the people they care about.”
“It’s important to bring doctors into this conversation. We need to support them because they really are on the frontline of so many serious social issues.”