Joe Williams, a proud indigenous man from Wagga Wagga, grew up in the bright green country around the Murrumbidgee River.
In 2004. Joe made his NRL first-grade debut for the South Sydney Rabbitohs. He went on to play for the Penrith Panthers, then the Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs.
But his glittering career went downhill, along with his mental health, after he fell to the ground concussed after taking a hit during a match. He turned to drugs and alcohol, made a suicide attempt, and ended up in the psychiatric unit of Dubbo Hospital, in western NSW.
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Yet from there he managed to bounce back – and his story of resilience and survival is inspiring. Joe, who has swapped rugby league for boxing, often shares his story of how he turned negative thoughts into positive outcomes.
In the psychiatric unit, he recalls: “I had this voice in my head telling me I’m not good enough and my life isn’t worth living.” Then a doctor said to him:
“Joe, you’re lucky to be alive. You’ve got a second chance at life now – what are you going to do with it?”
Joe never forgot those words. He sought help and was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. He was determined to heal himself: through doctors, sport, his Indigenous culture, and organisations that help raise awareness about mental health.
Joe is now an advocate for mental health awareness and says that helping others also helps him.
When we speak, he has a banner behind him that reads “The Enemy Within” at the top. Below are references to personal battles, mental illness, addictions, resilience, healing, trauma, adversity, and emotional well-being,
These words sum up his life, he says. As someone who has lived through these experiences and overcome these challenges, he wants to show young people, in particular, that they can survive with help.
Joe Williams (Photo: Supplied)
His healing process has seen him re-connect with his Wiradjuri/Wolgalu culture, which he says was the major recovery mechanism for him.
Joe, who has the Aboriginal flag tattooed on his forearm, wasn’t always well-connected with and educated about his culture. “I didn’t realise how important it was to me until many years into my journey.
“If I had had the tools that I culturally have now, I probably wouldn’t have gone down the paths that I did. But I think I had to go down those paths to find out who I am and how to navigate through it.”
He adds, with a smile: “It’s been a journey but it’s been my most healing journey.”
Joe’s goal is to help young people who struggle with mental health and depression because he feels it is harder for them to speak about them.
He reflects on his personal experience of trying to deal with these issues alone and in silence.
“As a young person I wasn’t comfortable, because of that stigma that’s associated with mental health,” he says.
Joe has published a book, Defying The Enemy Within, which details his life and contains tools for people to use to maintain a healthy emotional well-being.
A motivational speaker, he also holds workshops at schools and corporate events.
Joe was keen on boxing even when he was still playing rugby league.
“They [boxers] lived a healthy and clean lifestyle, they were confident, they walked with an air of arrogance, but when you meet them they’re just the humblest people,” he says.
Joe has competed in boxing professionally and twice won the World Boxing Federation World Junior Champion title, as well as the World Boxing Council Asia Continental title.
He is justifiably proud of those achievements.
“Those wins and those accolades are the work that it took to get to them. It took a hell of a lot of dedication, it took a lot of sacrifice and discipline, and they’re the values that have helped shape me as a person, ” he says.
His boxing coach, Johnny Lewis, recalls :“Joe’s dad was a very good boxer and I think he [Joe] wanted to follow in his footsteps.
“He’s a wonderful human being and I’ve got nothing but the utmost respect for him. With boxing, he just got better with every fight.
“When he did boxing with discipline, his confidence grew. It’s contributed to the man he is today.”
Joe’s work in the mental health sector has earned him many awards and achievements.
He has been named Wagga Wagga Citizen of the Year, was a finalist for the National Indigenous Human Rights Award, received Suicide Prevention Australia’s highest honour, the LiFE Award, and most recently was named a dual winner of the Australian Mental Health Prize.
“I’m living proof that things can get better,” says Joe. “I don’t have to beat it – I just have to learn how to manage it.”