Rugby league is a big deal in the Upper Hunter in regional New South Wales. But on a recent weekend, fierce competitors put rivalry aside and came together for a common cause.
The event was the Where There’s A Will round, named in honour of the former front rower for the Scone Thoroughbreds, Will Carrigan, who took his own life on Christmas Day 2015.
Will’s parents, Pauline and Hilton Carrigan, do not want anyone to go through what they have endured.
They have turned their grief into action and are campaigning to save lives.
“Someone said to me, ‘What would have saved Will?'” Mrs Carrigan said.
Her answer: “Education.”
‘Don’t be us’
Will, 24, was a fun-loving larrikin, his father said.
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“Just an ordinary country boy that did his work, loved his sport and loved all his mates,” Mr Carrigan said.
“Took his own life. We never saw it coming.”
The couple said they could now see their son was struggling.
“How does a boy who has everything explain to someone that they’re not well, and it’s not what they want, or it’s not how they saw it going?” Mrs Carrigan said.
After their son’s death, the Carrigans set out to learn more about youth suicide and depression.
“If I can say one thing, don’t be us,” Mrs Carrigan said.
“There’s a certain amount of guilt that came when I found out the statistics and I realised our children had been at risk for an awfully long time and we didn’t know.
“So we are doing you a favour by telling you your child is at risk.
“Don’t assume there is a typical type that commit suicide. They’re just normal, everyday children.”
Hopes program will go national
The Carrigans launched the Where There’s A Will charity with the aim of improving children’s mental health through education, starting at school but involving the whole community.
“I realised that you could actually immunise a child for their future, that you could teach them resilience and give them a cup half-full [mentality] in simple terms that prepares them for the knockbacks that they are going to take,” Mrs Carrigan said.
With funding from the charity, school teachers have undergone special training. Positive education programs have been introduced into more than 20 schools in the Hunter Valley.
Kim Wilson, a Year 1 teacher at St Mary’s Primary in Scone, said she was already seeing results.
“In two terms of doing this the language has changed, the kids are expressing their feelings, and they can say why they are happy and why they are sad,” Ms Wilson said.
Where There’s A Will is also running “mental health first aid” programs for adults in the community to help them identify children who are struggling.
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VIDEO: A message from the sons of the Upper Hunter to their fathers. Video by the Where There’s A Will charity. (ABC News)
Simon Murray, who heads the Positive Education Schools Association, said he was convinced what was happening in the Upper Hunter could lead to change across Australia.
“We will get data and evidence and publish that and this could become an exemplar for other regional centres and cities,” he said.
“This is a terribly important initiative for the rest of this country and I just hope the policy makers, the bureaucrats and the politicians, are actually noticing what’s happening.”
Mrs Carrigan said the hard work by Where There’s A Will and its supporters was paying off.
“We know that two boys who were contemplating suicide reached out for help and both came from that fact that they had been involved in [positive education] programs within the last six weeks,” she said.
“We lost our son, we won’t get him back. It’s our duty to make sure that other people don’t have to go through this and that’s the bottom line.”
‘Makes you pretty proud’
Back at the rugby league, Will’s former teammates said what happened to their friend had changed them all.
“It’s a big thing and I think it’s great what Pauline and the foundation are doing,” Tom Hagen said.
“Just getting word out into the community, just get a bit of awareness into people that it’s alright to talk and they don’t have to fight all their battles alone.”
NRL CEO Todd Greenberg attended the Where There’s a Will round.
“Makes you pretty proud as a leader of a sport to be here today and actually see this community come together for such an important cause,” he said.
After the game the local sports club was jam-packed for the auctioning of the players’ jerseys, with all proceeds going to the charity.
The last jersey to go was number 14, Will Carrigan’s.
“I think a lot of people in the room will know what it stands for,” Mr Greenberg told those gathered.
“I encourage you to bid strongly for it. I’m going to put the first one up for the NRL at $3,000.”
The bidding was fierce but the final offer of $13,500 was made by Mr Greenberg. And he’s sending the jersey home.
“This jersey could take pride of place in the rugby league museum, in a lot of places, but it belongs with the Carrigan family,” he said.