14 September 2023

Shark attack survivor's story starts conversations about mental health and seeking support

| Keeli Royle
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HIM Chair Mark Sleigh and shark attack survivor Brett Connellan.

Healthier Men Illawarra Chair Mark Sleigh and inspirational speaker Brett Connellan. Photo: Keeli Royle.

An inspiring local shark attack survivor will share his story of recovery with men across the Illawarra in the hope of starting conversations about mental health and reducing stigma around asking for support.

At just 22, Brett Connellan almost lost his life when he was attacked while surfing at Bombo Beach in 2016 but making it out alive was just the start of an incredible recovery that would throw him unimaginable challenges.

“I think the attack is what gets people engaged but the important part is the story of what comes after that,” Brett said.

He defied the odds and has returned to the ocean and run marathons.

But it was the hidden part of his journey which made it all possible.

“You’ve got the physical recovery which is the part that everyone can see,” Brett said. “But for me, I wouldn’t have been able to take the first step on that physical road to recovery if I didn’t look at the mental side of things first and I didn’t reach out and get that support and focus on my own mental health and find a way of coping,” he said.

And although Brett had not been a confident public speaker, his story started to resonate with others.

“One of my friends who was a schoolteacher got me in to talk to his kids for R U OK Day and that was the first time I ever shared my story and had no idea what I was doing,” he said. “I was terrified.

“I just went in and chronologically told the story and spoke for about 45 minutes and had about 45 minutes worth of questions with the students afterwards.”

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He then realised the extent of the impact he could make.

“And after that all the teachers came up to me and they said they’d never seen those kids sit still for five minutes, let alone 45,” Brett said. “They said, ‘You definitely have changed one of the kids’ lives today’.

“I just remember hearing that and thinking that’s such an amazing opportunity to have.

“The life I was living before never had anything wrong with it, but I could never change someone’s life in that sort of way.”

Brett has been praised for somehow making a shark attack seem like a universal human experience comparable to any of life’s struggles.

And at the core of it all, is the message about asking for help and finding a healthy way to cope.

“Something that my dad actually taught me really early on that I think is really important is when it comes to the idea of support you don’t often know how many people care about you and how many amazing supports are around you until you go through something significant,” Brett said. “The only problem is when you’re in that situation you’re not usually in the frame of mind to want to use that support or even recognise it in the first place.

“He really explained to me that identifying who these supports are early on is such a key part to the puzzle because if you know where to turn in times of struggle then that takes a whole lot of the guesswork out, it takes a whole lot of the pain out of that situation.”

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This year Brett will be the keynote speaker at the Healthier Illawarra Men (HIM) International Men’s Day Lunch, which has the theme ‘Zero Male Suicide’.

“I think it’s really going to do a lot for the conversation around mental health and how men choose to open up,” Brett said. “And I’m just excited to be a part of that conversation.”

HIM Chair Mark Sleigh said the event was all about learning, networking, creating better relationships and being able to talk about issues in an open and accepting environment.

“There’s also no particular age demographic; we bring our sons along to these events because it’s so important that we’re teaching our 14-, our 15-, our 16-year-olds, that it’s OK to talk and you should look after your health,” Mark said. “I think the earlier you can ingrain that in the next generation, the more important it is.”

Funds raised at the previous two events have all been invested back into organisations that support locals, like Gotcha4Life, the Gawura Aboriginal Corporation, the Top Blokes Foundation, The Barstool Brothers and Escabags.

“We believe that improving our men’s mental health can be beneficial for everybody in the community, so 100 per cent of the funds raised from our events go directly into delivering initiatives in the local community,” Mark said.

The event is on 17 November 2023 at Novotel Wollongong North Beach.

To find out more or to buy tickets visit the HIM website.

Anyone experiencing distress can seek immediate advice and support through Lifeline (13 11 14), Kids Helpline (1800 55 1800), or the digital mental health gateway, Head to Health.
If you are concerned about suicide, living with someone considering suicide, or bereaved by suicide, the Suicide Call Back Service is available at 1300 659 467.

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