Beyond Blue Ambassador Tony McManus Finds Recovery in Volunteering

Out of the void and into being buoyed

Can volunteering, a passion for helping others and a bucket list be the basis for fighting depression? For Tony McManus they made up a ‘toolkit’ to combat his war within.

Ten year’s ago Tony’s business was in decline. He felt burnt out and tumbling into the deep void of depression.  Unfortunately, this is an all too familiar scenario suffered by many Australians every day.

But Tony was lucky. He sought help, talked the talk, developed a plan of action, travelled and discovered a deep desire to help others via volunteering. He also had a bucket list – more about that later!

October 4-11 has been declared Mental Health Week. It’s a time to ponder how we can all do more to help with issues of mental health of our fellow Australians. What would you do if you suspected a family member, partner, friend or work colleague to be caving into depression? How would you know the signs? How can you be of help?

Hold those answers. Let’s go back to Tony’s story. When we met for our interview recently Tony recounted a very dark period in his life. He did so with ease fully content with the person he is now.

Marital breakdown, divorce, loss of business, grief

“In 2005 following the loss of my younger brother Mick who took his own life, my business went into decline and my marriage ended. I was burnt out by the loss of Mick, the consequences of living in an unhappy relationship and running a business I no longer had the passion for,” Tony told me.

Tony found himself alone and dealing with full-on grief and depression. He wondered how he could have done more to save Mick. His business was sold and his divorce came through. His two daughters were in the process of establishing their independence and had left home.

“I was free but felt a void because I was no longer living in a family home and had to start again on my own.

Mentorship is so important and it can be anybody

It can be scary making changes but sometimes one person can appear at the right moment, a mentor who shows acceptance and understanding. This can make a positive difference to someone dealing with depression. In Tony’s case it was Cathy Roth.

An intuitive person, Cathy could see beyond the personality of the depressive person who was Tony to a wonderful being who has great potential and an interest in helping others.

 “In the five years before I sold my business and my marriage was breaking up I knew this woman Cathy Roth. I can’t remember how we originally met but suddenly she was there as a person whom I felt comfortable sharing some of the issues I was trying to resolve,” said Tony.
Cathy Roth OAM, became Tony’s mentor. She suggested volunteering and recommended he join Rotary. Cathy had been a senior person at Rotary (in fact the first Australian female district governor 2004-5) so she was instrumental in helping Tony join the local Rotary Club in Geelong.

“I found from the first meeting, there was an instant feeling of acceptance, companionship and social connection. I made some really good friends out of it,” said Tony.

Then came the best bit, his gratifying reawakening as a volunteer, community spokesperson and mental health advocate. His journey out of depression had required a mega dose of questioning, soul-searching, faith and action to emerge as his new positive useful self.

Volunteering to engage with larger community

Volunteering and engaging with Rotary was a great way for Tony to instantly build new social connections. But it also lit up a new path for him that of promoting better mental health.

“I was now able to explore further my interest in being a mental health advocate. As my mentor Cathy had been so supportive of me, I was happy to agree to her request to join the Community Engagement Committee at the Rice Retirement Village in Geelong that is run by Mercy Health. She was on the Board there,” said Tony.

Here was his opportunity to give back and help people. He soon discovered the elderly residents in the retirement home had a strong interest in the Geelong Football Club. As they couldn’t travel to the football matches anymore Tony decided to bring the football to them. He set up The Grey Cats as a new support group for the retirement villagers who were Cats supporters (other club supporters were welcome).

“Three times a year we held a morning tea that involved stories being told in person from past players of the Geelong Football Club. The Bendigo Community Bank sponsored a tipping competition and we had really positive mental health outcomes,” said Tony.

An example was one of the ladies who was really isolated and withdrawn was given the job of collecting the footy tips each week.

“She went from being a fully-fledged recluse to social butterfly because she had to visit 70 people once a week to collect the tips!” shared Tony.

Beyond Blue Cup match

Always on Tony’s mind is the death of his brother Mick who took his own life in 2005. This devastating loss motivated Tony to become a Beyond Blue National Ambassador.

Volunteering with Beyond Blue (an initiative of former Victorian Premier Jeff Kennett), he successfully lobbied and encouraged the establishment of the Beyond Blue Cup. It’s a match played between the Geelong and Hawthorn Football clubs as a vehicle for using an AFL match to increase awareness and reduce the stigma associated with talking about mental health issues.

As a Beyond Blue National Ambassador, Tony regularly gives talks around the country where he gives tried and true pointers on turning depression on its side, building self-esteem by discovering the joys of becoming a giver, an adventurer and passionate volunteer.

Bucket list as antidote for depression

Tony shared this thought with me – “A potential solution for depression is lifestyle change.” One of his pointers is to make a bucket list as an antidote for depression. Of course he has already trialed this personally to great success.

“The idea is to sit down and do a bucket list of all the things you’ve ever wanted to do and have never had the chance to do so. One of the first items on my bucket list was to visit a tropical island,” said Tony.

So in 2014 and 2015 under the auspices of the Geelong-based volunteer scheme, the Ali Island Project, he travelled to Ali Island off the north coast of Papua New Guinea with some friends from Geelong to volunteer for the Project.

The Ali Island Project is a registered charity focusing on the health of the islanders in the Papua-New Guinea area and volunteers contribute to better their health, education and facilities.

“I was exploring ways of enjoying a really out-there adventure as well as helping the islanders. As volunteers we built some bungalows to allow them to generate an income from eco tourism. We supplied water tanks, we got to know the kids at the school and we kind of adopted the island,” said Tony passionately.

Item two on Tony’s bucket list

Another item on his bucket list was to visit Gallipoli because he has always been fascinated by the Anzac legend.

“I attended the Dawn Service for Anzac Day in 2014 & 2015 in Port Moresby at the start of the Kokoda Track. I walked the Kokoda Track. I wanted to learn more about the Anzacs and what they experienced. Their stories are very inspirational to me and I needed to feel their courage and endurance,” he said.

Change often breeds issues of isolation

Tony shared another thought – “One of the issues that people often struggle with is the concept of change. Life-changing moments like moving into retirement or the big adjustments from leaving the work force and all its business, tend to see people lose all their social connections and potentially become isolated. That’s when depression can strike the unlucky person.”

He believes that volunteering is a very good short or long-term option to fill the gap and “make yourself mentally healthier by maintaining social connections.

“Helping other people provides an outward looking perspective on life rather than dwelling on your own issues,” he said.

“My volunteering experiences have enabled me to connect with others resulting in a change of mood for the better. I’m trying to encourage people to use the Volunteering Victoria website to find a local charity or organization that needs the support of a volunteer in their area,” said Tony.

Tony urges everybody to be more aware of signs that partners, friends, workmates and family members are doing okay and offer assistance however you can. You never know how that bit of help can be instrumental in turning someone’s life around from dark to light.

By Lesley Sharon Rosenthal – Volunteer Writer for Volunteering Victoria

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