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FeatureLiving Well

Matt Runnalls.

Matt Runnalls wants to create a world where people feel more comfortable sharing who they are without any shame, fear or stigma.

Nov 17, 2022


Words: Lauren Murphy

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“I’ve sat at the back of too many funerals.”

These aren’t the words from someone farewelling friends at the end of long lives. They come out of thirty-one-year-old Matt Runnalls’s mouth, the pain apparent as his eyes gaze downwards.

Losing 10 mates to suicide and surviving his own attempts, Matt is out to change how we perceive and respond to mental health.

A fearless and heart-led advocate, he works passionately and tirelessly in the mental health space as CEO of Mindfull Aus. If you are expecting him to go light, don’t. Unfiltered and unapologetic, he is striving for change. He acknowledges his approach isn’t for everyone, but the work he and his team are doing is undoubtedly saving lives.

“...To see the uncertainty but not be paralyzed by it”.

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Matt wasn’t always this clear on his path. In his early twenties, he lived through years thinking he was a “burden, worthless and a failure”. Living with bipolar, experiencing continual abuse at his plumbing apprenticeship and losing friends to suicide in close succession, he disengaged from those closest to him and moved interstate, ending up homeless.

His path changed when he was taken in by a single mother, Aurora, and her five children. Aurora and her daughter Hollie brought him a sense of belonging. He started to see his bipolar as a gift and learnt that loss and grief can be turned into strength if we do something with it. Through a journey of self-discovery, support and professional training, Matt found that talking about his pain could help others navigate theirs.

“We are all wired for love, belonging and connection. We want to be loved, to be seen, to be heard. Authenticity is a big part of that. I want to create a world where people feel more comfortable to share who they are without any shame, fear or stigma.”

Now an international speaker, Matt's story has been featured in films, books, documentaries and podcasts. He believes in the power of sharing and that there is “nobody in this world that we can’t love once we’ve heard their story”. I ask Matt about the first time he stood up publicly in 2014 to share his story and what he would say to that Matt now. “Maybe I would tell him something like… Matt, everything that is going to happen to you, all the pain and discomfort and challenges… are carving you into something special but you’ve got to be here to see it. So, left foot, right foot, 1440 minutes at a time. It’s gunna hurt, it’s going to be uncomfortable, you’re going to get mocked, you’re going to get shamed, you’re going to have people saying you can’t… all of that is fuel on the fire.”

Speaking about his personal trauma can be tough, but Matt continues to create a platform for others to share their stories the same way he got to share his. He supports others to begin their own speaking journey and is filled with hope and confidence for what is ahead.

Matt talks about the “unhealthy narrative” in this country that causes people to live in accordance with others' expectations instead of following their values, thoughts and passions. He believes critical self-reflection is vital to well-being.

Matt recently released his debut book Nobody Can Save Me, a powerful and honest exploration of mental health. It’s been met with applause for bridging theory with straight talking and is now an Amazon #1 best seller. Approached by various large publishing houses to share his story early in his speaking career, he declined. However, during the lockdowns, he had the time to explore the idea further and was armed with personal anecdotes from journalling since he was 20.

He describes experiencing an “emotional hangover” after its release, but overall found it cathartic and he is seeing the positive resource the book is for others. The book includes his ‘blueprint to wellness’ and a strength-based guide full of tools, habits and values for individuals to manage their own self-care.

But the work doesn’t stop there. Matt knows a more proactive approach is needed by the mental health system, as well as an increase in divergent funding. “The government needs to stop throwing money into services that are waiting at the bottom of the cliff. Instead, spend some money putting the skills, tools and strategies back into the individual.”

In 2017, Matt created the Healthy Hearts & Lighter Minds program, a social and emotional learning program for ages three and up that aims to provide the tools to identify, control and express their emotions in positive ways.

“We have to model the behaviours we want our kids to mimic and I believe prevention is key to saving lives. We can’t be reactive to something like this because we aren’t going to catch everyone. We are losing 3200 people a year to suicide… We have a lot of work to do but we are moving in the right direction.”

There can be fear around starting conversations about mental health, something Mindfull Aus works to address through their programs and Mental Health First Aid training.

“It’s about having the toolkit to not be paralysed by what is coming next, to feel like ‘I can do this’. Further education on mental illness and support mechanisms are also needed to arm parents, colleagues and workplaces with the necessary tools to respond to someone in a mental health crisis. We need to prioritise the time to pause and listen to someone now, rather than the [time] to attend their funeral.”

I ask Matt if during his time as a mental health advocate he has seen the impacts of modernisation and technology on our ability to pause and be present. “100%. We are exposed to far more in the world than we ever once were. If we don't give ourselves time to process thoughts, or [if] we hold onto unhelpful ones, it impacts our wellbeing.”

Matt regularly pauses to acknowledge and process thoughts to prevent stress. He also has an hourglass sitting on his desk that is taped so he can’t see how much sand is in it. He uses it as a reminder to keep showing up with compassion and prioritising the health of those around him, including his partner, his little one and his parents. It also reminds him of the power in a single interaction and what that can mean to someone.

“The one time you want to talk about your thoughts, feelings and emotions might be the only time. So, if people are building up the courage to speak out to me, I’ll be there for them… It’s the same reason I’ve been able to go on and do what I do: because one lady believed in me and saw something in me that I couldn’t see in myself.”

Matt was awarded an Australia Day Medallion in 2018 and was a nominee for Australian of the Year in 2021, but what means more to him are the words from families whose lives have been positively impacted through their engagement with Mindfull Aus. His sense of being a burden is perhaps now counteracted by his immense action.

Feeling overwhelmed in his business is constant, not knowing where the next dollar is coming from, but he continues to step into the uncertainty of what is ahead – constantly seeking new ways to strengthen his wellbeing toolkit. A quote from Barack Obama comes to my mind, “to see the uncertainty but not be paralyzed by it”.

Perhaps we can all pause and listen a little more to ourselves and those around us.

You can find out more about Mindfull Aus training and events, including their annual Charity Gala Ball being held on October 2, at mindfullaus.org.

Gippslandia - Issue No. 24

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