Wayne Schwass was on the podium double punching the air in victory after North Melbourne won the 1996 AFL grand final but behind the “fake” smile was a man paralysed with fear and wanting to end his own life.
Schwass was the first witness at the opening hearing of the Victorian royal commission into the mental health system on Tuesday. He recounted a painful 12 years of “lying, hiding and pretending” that he was happy and healthy.
He had a nervous breakdown driving home from football training one night in 1993. Consumed by shame, guilt and embarrassment, he sat in his car outside his house for an hour and a half because he was too scared to face his fiancee in such a vulnerable state.
“This is not how a man is meant to behave,” he told the hearing. “I sat in the car until I stopped crying.”
Schwass was diagnosed with depression a fortnight later but it took much longer for him to get the help he needed.
“I used alcohol and drugs to self-medicate for the next six years,” he said. “I was trained to be a good athlete – I wasn’t trained to be a balanced individual.”
The commission was shown a picture Schwass tweeted of himself receiving a premiership medal after playing in the 1996 grand final, which he captioned: “This is what suicidal looks like.”
“Fake smile, act happy, celebrating premiership success with @NMFCOfficial in 1996. Truth was, incredibly suicidal, looking for my wife in the crowd because I wanted to end my life. Only 2 people knew in a crowd of 94.5k my wife & GP,” he tweeted in 2017.
It took Schwass more than 12 years to tell his family about his mental health problems. “There are far too many men and boys who are hurting and in pain but choose to say nothing because of fear of losing respect and being judged,” he said.
He said finding the confidence and courage to share his story publicly in 2006 was the beginning of getting his life back. Schwass now runs an organisation called PukaUp that aims to raise awareness of mental illness.
The former federal trade minister, Andrew Robb, also gave evidence on Tuesday about how he battled a “little black dog” which grew bigger for 40 years. He revealed publicly in 2009 that he had suffered from depression since he was 13 years old.
Robb struggled each morning “waiting for the cloud to lift”, saying his children knew never to ask dad for money before 8.30am and his office staff knew to schedule meetings after 9.30am.
For many years Robb lived in denial about having depression and thought he just “wasn’t a morning person”.
Sometimes he would drive to work with a pen in his mouth, to trick his brain into thinking he was smiling so it would release endorphins and make him feel better.
When he finally did seek help, there were more struggles ahead; anti-depressant drug side effects and a harrowing trial and error process of working out which medication dose was best for his condition.
“I’ve managed it to a point that I could do any job,” he said.
Earlier, the hearing was told that 20% of Victorians – 1.2 million people – are grappling with mental health issues and 3 million will experience an episode during their lifetime. In 2017 the state lost 600 lives to suicide.
The royal commission chair, Penny Armytage, said the inquiry was a once-in-a-generation chance to look at shortcomings and design a top notch system so future generations did not have to suffer.
“Doing more of the same will not be enough,” Armytage said. “The calling of this royal commission is also an acknowledgement that the mental health system is broken.”
Armytage said one person had told the inquiry: “We don’t want to fill in the potholes. We want a new road.”
The counsel assisting the inquiry, Lisa Nichols QC, said 91 witnesses would give evidence over the next month.
She said the supply of mental health services were not keeping up with demand or population growth on a per capita basis. Clinical mental health services were also crisis-driven and reactive.
“The greater the demand for services, the higher the threshold has to be raised for admission into services,” she said.
She said some people arrived when they were very unwell and left before they were adequately stabilised. Ten sessions a calendar year, to see a psychologist or psychiatrist, were not enough.
She foreshadowed a focus on the system’s “missing middle”, in which thousands of people’s cases are too complex for primary care alone but they aren’t sick enough to access specialist services.
The hearings will run until 26 July in Melbourne and the commission will also travel to the regional town of Maryborough to consider how the system is working in rural communities.
• Crisis support services can be reached 24 hours a day: Lifeline 13 11 14; Suicide Call Back Service 1300 659 467; Kids Helpline 1800 55 1800; MensLine Australia 1300 78 99 78; Beyond Blue 1300 22 4636. In the UK and Ireland, Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123 or email firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com. In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. Other international suicide helplines can be found at befrienders.org