Blue skies and beyond for mental wellbeing
CHAMPION ATHLETE DANNI DI TORO AND BEYOND BLUE CHIEF COMMUNITY OFFICER PATRICE O’BRIEN JOIN FEROS CARE’S GROW BOLD WITH DISABILITY PODCAST TO EXPLORE MENTAL HEALTH AND A PARTNERSHIP BENEFITING PEOPLE WITH DISABILITY.
As a six-time Paralympian armed with a mental approach as strong as the physical, Danni Di Toro has broken through many a perceived barrier in collecting a lifetime of accolades.
However, that wasn’t always the case for Danni, who, not a stranger to glory through claiming 10 Australian Open tennis, grand slam
and other titles in wheelchair and table tennis, is also not immune to the ill
effects of mental health.
HOW STIGMAS AND PSYCHOLOGICAL STRESSES IMPACT THE
MENTAL WELLBEING OF PEOPLE WITH DISABILITY
For every win, there was once a doubt, and like Danni,
people with disability are more likely to experience higher levels of psychological stress than those without disability, while they grapple with generalisations from “your life has no value”, through to extremes when overcoming
the same perceived barriers contextualised in a narrative of helplessness.
“There is this weird stigma that you are not able to
live a meaningful life, through to ‘you’re such a superhero because you’ve
overcome so much,” said Danni, whose life changed forever in 1998 when a brick wall falling on her at a
swimming carnival left the now 45-year-old a paraplegic.
“As a young person dealing with a disability, I kind
of went through all those things and as an athlete excelling in different areas.
When I was struggling with mental health, I was in states of anxiety and even
panic attacks, and when I spoke about those, it was like, ‘well, surely that’s
not happening for you because you’ve overcome so much’.
“It’s hard because that stigma kind of stops you from
being able to empower yourself to reach out to the organisations and to your
community and to the people that you know who can actually support you through
journalist Pete Timbs and writer, editor and disability advocate Tristram Peters
on Feros Care’s Growing Bold With Disability Podcast
, Danni spoke about her journey and how reaching out to those who can support helped her find balance and resilience.
One of those
organisations, Beyond Blue, became more of a support when Danni’s journey led
her to being appointed the Athlete Engagement Wellbeing Officer and Vice
Chairperson of the Athlete Commission for Paralympics Australia.
Paralympics Australia, Beyond Blue’s Chief Community Officer Patrice O’Brien
said the partnership reflects a need for supports to be as equally available
for people with disability.
health doesn’t discriminate, situations vary with different factors influencing
anxieties, depression and struggles for people with disability, which Patrice
said needed to be better understood and supported.
“We try to
ensure that all our supports that we provide are as accessible as possible, but
we know we can always get better at that,” she said.
“So, part of
what we really want to do is keep talking to people within the community and
with disabilities about how we can get better. That’s one of the reasons we’ve
got a partnership with Paralympics Australia.”
As a conduit
between Beyond Blue and elite-athletes and people with disability, Danni spoke
about the role while echoing Patrice’s sentiments of a need “to get better” in
connective and support opportunities for people with disability, who not only
face stigma, but are susceptible to loneliness, particularly in periods of
isolation such as in 2020.
Aiming to fill a
major gap in that support, Danni sees the need for more education and
“When it comes
to being the best versions of ourselves on and off the field, there’s a lot of
awareness around that with athletes, but not necessarily for athletes with
disability,” Danni said.
“For the most
part in the last 21 years, those services have not been made available to
athletes with disabilities, so there’s an advocacy in bringing that to light,
particularly with big organisations who make big decisions. When you start
thinking about what welfare looks like and considering athletes with disability
and their challenges, there’s a lot of learning to be done.
I found one organisation working with mental health and people with disability
in the community… so, we’ve worked really hard to create people within that
who’ve had some lived experiences and experience with disability.”
While the opportunity
to seek equal and beneficial support shouldn’t be mutually exclusive to the
non-disability community, Danni said that seeking an ultimate outcome of
“happiness” should be.
In her own
experiences, Danni’s mental health is a continuum of her physical health, but
whether an athlete or not, she said understanding each person’s individual
circumstances and experiences was a key factor in support services’ ability to
co-succeed in positive outcomes.
“We all want to
be happy and want to be living a life that’s free from suffering, and for
people with disability, the things we look for are around purpose and
community,” she said.
“When you think
about how we live purposeful, meaningful lives, it’s a challenge for people
within our community as there’s lots of barriers. Our unemployment rates are
twice as high, there’s reduced choices, difficulties in getting amongst the
community, and being able to access places.
rates of physical, sexual, and financial abuse within our community, and there
are so many things that people with disabilities are experiencing on a daily
level that really impact.”
HOW SPORT IS ASSISTING PEOPLE WITH
DISABILITY LIKE DANNI TO POSITIVELY IMPACT THEIR MENTAL HEALTH
and being active as a major factor in enjoying her own holistic health and
limiting those impacts, Danni said finding one’s individual purpose, regardless
of what it might be, is a key for setting the alarm and getting up in the
Bold” means something separate to both Danni and Patrice as individuals, they
are both united in Beyond Blue’s and Paralympics Australia’s partnership in
finding better ways to support the mental health of people with disability.
“I’ve had to work really hard to back myself, when
those red flags in my behaviour and my mental thoughts appear, to pick up
on them and reach out,” Danni said.
“But being bold for me is about exploring the new, and
very much being comfortable with the uncomfortable and seeing what comes from
that because there’s some pretty exciting things there.”
“The only way to truly grow bold is to be bold, and to
really embrace challenges when they come your way,” Patrice added.
“I think, to truly realise the greatest learnings,
sometimes we have to go through the greatest challenges, so, it is boldness in
being open to the opportunity. That’s not always easy, but it’s part of the key
to living a great life.”
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