How Being On Country Helped Rulla Cope With Mental Health Issues

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Disclaimer: This article is about thoughts of suicide.

When I was born in a house at the foot of Mount Roland on a winter night in northern Tasmania, my parents called me Rulla.

The story of my name is the story of the Masked Owl, which is my totem; it is the story of the protector. In our language, Palawa-Kani, Rulla means “strong”.

I grew up in two small towns 15 minutes apart: Mole Creek and Deloraine.

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We call this area Kooparoona Niara (the Great Western Tiers). Two minutes from Mole Creek is our family-friendly native wildlife conservation sanctuary, the Trowunna Wildlife Sanctuary.

The park property backs onto a magnificent gorge and a spiritual place that we call Tulampanga (cliffs of the ancients) which, in our language, means “red ocher”.

I have a strong bond with this country.

My education took place in a beautiful setting, but I had to face difficult challenges.

The experience of these challenges has led me to recognize that we all have a responsibility to help others.

Managing life through grief

Throughout my teenage years, our family managed life through constant grief: deceased aunts and uncles and grandparents. One of my uncles committed suicide when I was 13 years old. There were also times when I had mental health issues and spent time in the hospital after an attempt.

With help, I founded a positive mental health charity, Make Runs Maxi, at the age of 24 after going through these hardships.

It was founded with the aim of encouraging all to find purpose and fulfillment in life. The charity was named after a young man from the same area as me, a man I trained in sports.

His name was Isaac ‘Maxi’ Walters and he died at the age of 16.

For any youngster, acceptance is something we all juggle and with youth comes demands that are sometimes greater than we can handle.

There is great pressure to decide what our life should be like by the time we turn 18. As we learn with age and maturity, it is a difficult decision and it can be detrimental to feel this pressure when we are so young.

The programs I offered to community groups for “Make Runs Maxi” were aimed at changing the negative narrative of the term “mental health”. The goal was to engage people in the positive side of our mental health, socio-emotional health, and well-being, and what it looks like when we’re at our best.

2020: a year of change

When I was 27 years old, living and working in Adelaide and playing SANFL football with Glenelg Football Club, I was diagnosed with T2 embryonic testicular cancer, an aggressive cancer that spread through my lymphatic system to my aorta. I had three cancerous lymph nodes measuring 10mm; it meant I was in stage 2, almost stage 3 when I was diagnosed.

Rulla in the hospital receiving cancer treatment.
Rulla in the hospital receiving cancer treatment.(ABC: Haidarr Jones)

All of this happened throughout 2020 when the world was struggling with COVID and I was living in Adelaide. Border restrictions meant I couldn’t see my family in Tasmania. I spent nine weeks on intense chemotherapy which to date has been successful.

Fortunately, I had amazing friends, work colleagues in Adelaide and nurses at Royal Adelaide Hospital who supported me. I have used many different methods to get by, including a challenge of 25 push-ups every day for 25 consecutive days and a “Note in Mind” that I read every morning and night.

This country, my country

Throughout this adversity, I was lucky to have a nice pocket of the globe to help me center myself and dig my feet into its soil around Kooparoona Niara.

Tulampanga, Mole Creek, and Gog Range (Mount Roland) are all places I feel like I belong.

The hectic life of a city, the online world we are all subscribed to, exhausts you, it consumes your creativity and energy. I constantly feel like I live in two worlds.

Rulla Kelly-Mansell swims.
This country connects me to culture and family.(ABC: Haidarr Jones)

When I am able to be in my country far from these distractions, I resource myself. Connect by swimming in a cold waterhole when all you can hear is the meander river flowing and birdsong, hear the sounds of the land, the trees and the wind hitting you, the sky in all his lens, night and day.

I’m grateful for the opportunity to live my life and help others through stories like this, music, and authentic conversations.

Life is a beautiful experience and a magical blessing. It’s just a matter of perspective.

Rulla Kelly-Mansell is a proud man from Tulampanga, presenter with ABC Adelaide, NAIDOC Tasmanian Aboriginal of The Year 2020, performer and musician.

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