Birrong Boys and Bulldogs tackle mental health

NRL club Canterbury has combined with other ambassadors to help Birrong Boys High School students open up about mental health. Glenn Cullen reports.

Image: From L to R: Fayssal Sari, Bulldogs General Manager Community; educAid Au founder Tareq Ahmed; Birrong Boys High School Principal Darren Stevens; Teacher Ghada Serhan; Student Support Officer Ola Elhassan and Bulldogs NRL Wellbeing Officer Luke Goodwin.

With an economics degree, solid job and impressive junior career as a powerlifter, Tareq Ahmed appeared to have a model life.

His reality was rather different.

“On the inside, I was falling apart,” he told a group of Birrong Boys High School students, who’d gathered for the first session of their health and wellbeing program at Canterbury Leagues Club.

After a complicated relationship with his father, most of his teen years spent looking in the mirror and “not liking what I saw”, Mr Ahmed was carrying a weight of unresolved issues as he encroached upon his mid-20s.

It took a physical breakdown to exacerbate the mental one.

Going for an Australian junior powerlifting record, he tore a muscle in his back. It wasn't just his body that gave way that day as his life quickly started to unravel.

“Everything collapsed,” the former Belmore Boys High student said.

Eventually, Mr Ahmed called on a friend who’d also had mental health issues and arranged for some sessions with a psychologist.

With the help of medication and some heartfelt discussions, he got his mental health back on track and was so taken by what he’d learned that he went back to university to do another degree in psychology.

He’s now completing a master's and working with schools such as Birrong Boys High School as part of educAid Au.

Image: Birrong Boys High School Year 11 students Yaman Pahari and Kerrar Allhazaaly.

That in turn is only part of what Birrong Boys High is doing, the school also partnering with the Canterbury Bulldogs NRL club to work with the students on positive mental health.

Ex-Bulldogs player Luke Goodwin, now Head of Wellbeing at the Bulldogs, said he hoped that talking about his experiences helped the students.

With his father Ted considered rugby league royalty – so much so the St George and Australian representative earned the nickname ‘Lord’ – Luke said he was well aware of the pressure of expectations and how that could impact your mental health.

“It’s something I didn’t realise back in the day - how much it did affect me,” he said.

“Then there’s been other things in my own life that I’ve been able to draw upon that really pushed me into this space.”

Ola Elhassan, Student Support Officer – Wellbeing at Birrong Boys High School, said the tough time many students faced during COVID prompted her to work on a holistic program of support late last year.

Partnering with the Bulldogs gave it that extra bit of gloss.

“I’m a social worker and I can talk about this until I’m blue in the face but if they hear it from a player or ex-player, it gives it a bit more street cred,” she said.

Each week in May, the students will meet at the club and focus on a different part of mental health.

In the coming weeks, it extends to healthy eating, physical well-being and then giving back and gratitude.

They are encouraged to discuss their feelings and emotions, look for positive relationships and know where to get help if needed - now and in the future.

“Today I learned that it’s not just physical health, but emotional health that I can take care of – and hanging out with the proper people helps,” Year 11 student Yaman Pahari said.

Image: Tareq Ahmed discusses his experience with Birrong Boys High School students.
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