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Community engagement crucial for good mental health

For last year's Northern Territory Young Australian of the Year, speaking up about issues being suffered – whether you're from a small town or big city – is crucial in ensuring health and happiness.

In 2015, Bridie Duggan was shocked by the suicide of a close friend in her hometown of Katherine, NT.

"It was the first real loss that I'd faced before, and he was someone I knew so closely. It just shocked the whole community," she recounted.

"I was just taken aback by the fact that he didn't ask for help – I was left wondering, why didn't he talk to someone? And why isn't there help available?"

Ms Duggan decided to take action by setting herself a fitness challenge on social media, travelling around Darwin doing 100 burpees each day for a month, through which she was able to raise $27,000 for the Livin Foundation. Her fundraising efforts, and advocacy, saw the then 24-year-old honoured as the 2017 NT Young Australian of the Year.

As a qualified life coach, personal trainer, wellness advocate and recent graduate of a Masters of Physiotherapy qualification, who has also been dedicating countless hours to community service, she is truly living up to her Australia Day citation: a "superwoman within her community".

"I didn't aim to become an advocate in any sense, but I knew something had to be done to spread awareness about mental health," she explained.

"What I didn't realise is that almost everyone you speak to has either been through something, or know of someone that either passed away or had dark times where they've needed help."

This proved especially true in Katherine, she found, which – as a town of just 6,300 people – breeds the mentality of being "Territory tough", especially for the young men.

"People never really opened up about their feelings, because it was seen as weak to do so," she said.

"Now, since [my friend's] loss, a conversation has been sparked and it is more acceptable for people to get help."

Having a collegiate, hospitable community is essential, she argued, in order for people to feel comfortable discussing issues they are facing.

And it is up to us as individuals, she continued, to contribute to the health our communities – whether they be sporting, educational or towns – by giving back in recognition of the fact that there are people out there less fortunate than ourselves.

"It just opens your eyes to how ungrateful we can be about life in general, about our health and the things that we have around us," she said.

"By volunteering with the community, you can help others and just spark that joy within them, that you yourself might have been given by someone else."

There is, she added, a dual responsibility at play here – both the individual and the community have to step up and help those who are struggling.

"Individuals definitely can't just depend on everyone else for their own happiness, they do have to make that change and be willing to do so," she said.

"But it's also definitely on the community as well to make sure it is looking out for everyone."

When it comes to individual action, Ms Duggan said that immersing one's self in the community, and speaking to trusted confidants, is the best way forward.

"If you are feeling excluded from society, try to get out there and join some sporting clubs, or try catching up more often with people, as it opens you up to help if you are facing problems."

Given her professional work, she's also big on pushing physical exercise as a community activity; she's never met anyone, she said, that has done a workout and said they felt bad afterwards.

And when it comes to helping those in your community, make sure you get them on board by suggesting effort in small increments.

"If your friend is down, suggest catching up for a walk, or doing something outdoors. Most of the time, if people get outside, that's where they are happy and can start to feel different to when they were inside within the confines of the house," she concluded.

"Make sure that you're an available option for people, and if they do come to you, that you're not going to turn them away or judge them in any way."

Such community service is, she said, one of the best ways we can ensure suicides – be it in a small town or a big city – do not happen in the future.  

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“Kindness is the language that the deaf can hear and the blind can see.” – Mark Twain