interview by alysia antonnucci


I met Helen through a wellness program at my work.  She filled the room with an instant presences,  she held a sweetness that bore no trace of the sickly. When she spoke I sensed that she believed in her words and would back them if challenged. Yet as she tilted her head towards me and nodded along to our conversation I could see that listening was her primary skill. In speaking with her I learnt that she had a long history of working in the mental health sector.  Her particular passion is exploring men’s health, searching for effective methods to reach her audiences in a way that really resonates.

I’ve spent a lot of time studying mental health, and even more time in the company of women, watching the way we navigate the reality of being female in our society. With Helen I wanted to talk about the other side of that coin. What is needed in the realm of men’s mental health in Australia and what is it like for a woman to try and nut this out?

Your work focuses on mental health and wellness, how did that come about?

I started as a primary school teacher.
I especially loved teaching Prep and I had some casual jobs moving from school to school. Each day I would watch the children and parents who come in late and they both look really stressed and the child was pushed through the door and then doesn’t learn very well for the rest of the day.  It just made me wonder why some children had such a bad start.
Really it started from an interest in education.

From there I went into youth work, and worked with people with schizophrenia and other mental illness; that was really a big wake up call!
It was very extreme, but also really good to understand that we are incredibly lucky if we don’t have to struggle with something like that.
That put it into perspective.
After that I wasn’t very freaked out by people with drug or mental health issues because I really felt like I had seen it all. You know, 17 year old who have everything to live for but are hearing voices and are frightened all the time; it is shocking.I traveled along, worked in parenting and at the Center for Adolescent Health, and was very interested in seeing young men come in there.

I suppose a lot of people are interested in women’s health, and I am too, but because we have a culture where men often don’t talk about how they feel, I had this sense of it being a mystery I wanted to unlock.

I also came from a family of four older brothers, very male dominated.  I worked in prisons, which is also very male dominated, and then I had a family - of all boys

Good male genetics then?

EVEN THE BUDGIE! I thought I had a girl, and it wasn’t.


Yep, men!
It is just how it unfolded for me. I have done a lot of training in the workplace as well and I found talking to men is best done at their workplace, so that has been a great practice.
I have men come up to me after sessions who say they have struggled with mental health their whole life and never told anyone! That would be rare in women actually, to never have told anyone.

Do you find it easier to talk to boys because of your upbringing?

I would say so yes. I think it is something that is maybe natural to me. For example I might strike a conversation with men on the train and you can tell that they are surprised. Women are perhaps more likely to start little conversations with each other. I think maybe men are unsure about talking to strangers, especially women, which is an interesting cultural bind we find ourselves in.

Do you think being female in a role that mainly speaks about wellness to male audiences is a help or a hindrance?

Well I never thought of it. I suppose a help, because I don’t know anything else. But there are times when I will ask male co-workers to join me to help cover the scope. Sometimes I think a male feels like the women in their life can’t relate to what they are going through,

having a woman say ‘ I know what it is like to feel locked in a role you can’t escape’,  I think it is nice to hear.

It is good to have a mixed group when talking to men about mental health, I think it is good to reach the ears of all sexes.

That struck me when I watched your presentations. I just felt that it would be more effective to have the families and friends of these men in the room…

Yes, because even if we say it isn’t anything to be ashamed of, it happens to 1-5 people and so on, 

you really are bearing your soul when you admit to struggling.

...I guess there may be this fear of admitting how sad you are to a partner.

That is true, sometimes partners will say ‘why aren’t you having a happy life with me?’

The hardest of conversations.
I know you have worked with Mo-vember and their campaigns are specifically aimed at men. Do you think campaigns that are gender specific are helpful?

Hmm, sometimes good, sometimes bad.
You can’t speak for all men, some love to talk to only males other prefer to speak to female Councillors.
My biggest surprise was that Mo-vembers largest focus is male mental health but also prostate issues, and I found that interesting; why mix those two?
But when I started talking to people who had operations or cancer in that way, I realized that societal fear of not being a ‘functioning man’ is enormous to the health of a male.

I was surprised in how much stock men put into being sexually functional. I mean women do too, but…. We have a lot of gender rubbish happening in Australia.

Yeah, from race, religion to sexuality, there are so many mental health issues that arise from what society tells us to be.  Do you think that it is important to have different health institutions to represent different groups?

Hopefully those things change over time. In fact maybe hearing more and more from diverse minority communities are our way out of this societal prison we find ourselves in. Really it is a Human Rights issue and when you see it in that sense, everyone has the right to feel supported and safe and healthy regardless of our sexuality, culture or identity. Those conversations start to make it easier because we have a lot of problems because of stereotypes.

You know, it is awful for women to be seen as second class citizens, generally in the world.  

75% of people who suicide in Australia are men, so there are obviously restricted options in society for them too. That is so wrong, we don’t want anyone to do that- but you think it would be 50/50.

I was reading a statistic that suggested  every minute 60 men die of suicide across the globe, it is massive.

And what I have noticed is that it is more often a shock. The vast majority of suicides are after a long process, of struggle, counselling, doctors, a long history. Yet when I hear of men who lose their job, their relationship broke up, and they suicide the next week, I think that is just a tragedy

Is it a communication problem, a feeling that there are just no options for help?

I heard from a guy once who said that his daughter and wife kept saying he should be more emotionally available and open about his feelings.  Eventually he decided he would take three months off and figure out what he will do and how to feel better. Then his wife comes in saying‘ ARE YOU CRAZY we have a mortgage!’ and the daughter starts to cry and says ; ‘Dad I don’t like you like this, go back to normal!’

And I love that story because it sums it up. We critique but then demand that they be the rock, the one to lean on.

I notice that in lots of relationships it is like people try to fit honesty around a need to fulfill social stereotypes.

Yes, if two people are having a relationship and one might be emotionally vulnerable and one might be strong, it’s nothing to do with gender, it’s personality.
I see it a lot, where I think a lot of the problems people visit me with their sons wouldn’t be seen as a problem if it was their daughters 

Give me an example.

They say  ‘He is sensitive and he cries and he is scared to do things alone’ and sometimes I think, well if this was your 19 year old daughter you would shrug it off as normal things.

I’m certainly not saying men are worse off, but for me that is just my interest area, I want to shine a light on that.

Because I have two sons and I want them to be able to express how they feel and have healthy relationships…

… I see a lot of this stereotyped macho stuff, it still happens and it cripples people. I was a at a sports event the other day and a boy was on the bench with a broken hand and these kids were heckling him, calling him a pussy, and the coaches just let it go.

It is a bizarre psychology isn’t it?

How did all these observations translate into working in prisons?

I worked with people who were getting out.  I would go and talk to their families or girlfriends on the outside then go and talk to them within the prison.  If someone enters back into a family or life that is functioning they are much less likely to go back in.

Are the families often working?

Well, they often work for the first few weeks, and then they get told they are back to their old ways and the family is sick of them. Or sometimes the men approach it like a time to reclaim the family and start asserting themselves with the kids and their wives. The partner feels like they have been surviving fine without that.

Could you explain how that works in Australia? If for example, you were homeless before you entered prison, are you provided accommodation when you exit?

You're given very sparse rooming house, a space where people are probably using drugs anyway so it is very hard to fight your way out

But it was really interesting rewarding work. I saw so many of these men break down and cry because they are just damaged boys.

 I do not excuse what they have done but they had no role models of what a healthy family is and often no good example of how to treat females well or cope with feelings without lashing out.
Even though it is right to put them behind bars for beating up their girlfriends, when they told me about it, when they explained their childhood, what I was felt was…how else could it have turned out?

The perfect storm.

I read somewhere a brilliant explanation for it! That it is not so much ‘reintegration’ but the first time an individual may have ever been integrated. And I see that in what you are saying, that if someone ends up in prison it may be because they never felt a part of society, or a supportive relationship or a school program. So, I imagine what we call ‘reintegration’  is a completely vulnerable experience for them; a whole new experience.

Yeah, for sure. It is hard to balance that because I think it is truly terrible to think women can’t be safe in their own home or that a pregnant woman can be hurt by a loved one. When you sit down with these guys the theme is grief, multiple people letting them down, hurting them, abusing them, frightening them ! Such a great sense of loss, and when the girlfriend says ‘get out, you drink too much!’ in their words they see white…they just lash out.
I can never excuse it, but I do think we need to understand it because we lock them up and then they are out again. If we can support vulnerable families better- and get a hold on gender equality from when kids are tiny we may be able to stop the huge problem of violence against women.

Do you feel there is a better approach to the current prison system and punishment approaches?

Well, most of the prisons I went to were full with people with short term sentences on drug charges,which are kind of more health issues, and they were taking up time and resources.

It was interesting to go to the female prison, which I hear is now much large. But when I was there was only around 120 women inside, and I would say 60 or so were in their because their boyfriend had gotten them into trouble.
What is it? What is going on where women don’t commit angry violent crimes and men do?


Helen breaks to feed me wine and quiches.
Buttered up, we continue.

What is one of the best experience you have had teaching someone about mental health?

I was talking with some 17 year old boys in TAFE, cheeky, noisy. And what I tried to get across was even if you have mental health issues, which many of them had, instead of focusing on all the things that were going bad, or your anxiety, depression or paranoia, wake up every morning and say – ‘given what is happening to me right now, what is the best day I can have?' Rather than telling yourself you cannot be happy until you get A, B and C. Because it is not true, you have a long way to go and you need to enjoy that time.

A kid came up to me and said that was a light bulb moment because he had been keeping everything at bay until his depression got better. He said I had made him feel like he could go and do a whole lot of things and recover.
I drove home that night thinking I am so lucky to be able to have that conversation and that feeling.

I think this comes back to what we touched on about relationships when we say ‘ our relationship will be good when’…


That has become my little mantra, I have a friend who has cystic fibrosis and who has defeated the odds and lived to a ripe age and had children and she really approaches life like that.
I love that! I love that idea!
When you take the spotlight off your illness, whatever it may be and do other things, it makes you feel better.

How do you see mental health or conversations around it changing? A lot of the information feels quiet repetitive, do you see that changing?

We are in danger of pathologising everything. If you think about people having babies, we have been doing it for a REALLY long time, and yes some people raise healthy children and others don’t, we rightly put a lot of effort into that. I saw a necklace the other day, these very expensive pearls that were teething pearls so if your baby chewed on them it is good for their gums, and I thought, well there is just such a lot of stuff we make up and label.

Yeah- that is what a nipple is!

I think we overthink, and we should move our attention onto helping others, and integrating all the people in our society and becoming more human rights aware. That's what we should worry our brains with. Too much overthinking seems to be causing anxiety overload, I just see us overdoing everything and becoming totally anxiety ridden.

It’s a horrible expression but my dad used to say ‘ we need a good war’.  guess he thought mental health was actually good in the war days because people felt useful and like they had purpose.

Utility is key I guess. How masterful do you feel, and if you don’t, stop doing it?

Yes, agreed, we need to wake up a bit, become a bit more positive.


What makes you feel positive?

Fixing up old vintage caravans.