He’s among the most recognisable figures of Australian health, but behind the tough exterior, Steve “Commando” Willis has a past riddled with darkness.
It’s a truth of which he’s long been candid about in his dedication to battling mental health stigma and helping others find the light he did — admitting that to this day, his life is not devoid of “hard times”.
The TV personality is ambassador for Sir Martin David Foundation’s Abseil for Youth event, an initiative to raise funds and awareness for young Australians battling substance abuse.
He is hoping to encourage others to find a means of coping with their mental health struggles away from the dangerous path of addiction — like he did with exercise.
“I do see myself in some of them,” he said of the young people aided by the organisation.
“Turning to drugs and alcohol is a coping mechanism which is what we all need to understand … I’m lucky I found what helped me in exercise and found that balance, but so many people can’t find something like that, and that’s what I want to help people do.
“I can put myself in their shoes with the feeling that you need something to pull you out, but that needs to be something that betters your life, whatever that may be.”
Willis, who is also an ambassador for R U OK? Day went on to explain that it was adjusting to life post-military that plunged him into the shadows many years ago.
“We all experience hardships in life, I certainly did when I was younger, especially transitioning out of the military and dealing with the uncertainty, the unknown and embracing a new way of being and not knowing what that might look like.”
Having served for more than a decade in the military, Willis once estimated that 10 colleagues from his army unit took their own lives since leaving the armed forces.
The 43-year-old father-of-four said there was a time when he struggled to admit he needed help to “crawl out of the dark space”.
“It sounds silly, but knowing how to ask for help was a huge obstacle for me,” he said.
“It’s hard to explain, but it’s this place that you don’t know how to crawl out of. You need people to be gentle and kind and embracing and accepting, and to find those people and approach them as the first step can sometimes seem so hard.
“It’s about the way you’re encouraged (to seek help),” he added, “In some situations people sort of point the finger and it’s almost demanded of you, which doesn’t work.”
He explained that “letting go of the military mindset” and adjusting to civilian life after entering the army in his late-teens, was a source of great angst, but exercise was his saviour.
“Exercise has played a big role in my life for a long time, in transitioning out of the army, I kind of took a step in that direction, and that helped to gain focus, and set a routine and rhythm. But that in itself came with its challenges.”
He said for teens who have leant on alcohol or drugs, it can be a process in itself finding a healthy replacement to lead them down a brighter path, but with organisations like the Sir David Martin Foundation, it was becoming easier.
“You’re really starting from a place of zero and just learning what it’s like to find within yourself what brings you joy and using a bit of creativity to find whatever it is, that helps bring you out of the dark place you’re in. The behaviours and the habits that they’ve found themselves in for such a long time can be hard to break, but that’s what I’ve always wanted to do with my platform. Show people that (these behaviours) can be broken.”
Steve, who has four children, Brianna, Ella, Jack (from his previous relationship), and Axel (who he shares with partner, Michelle), said as he grew up and developed a greater understanding of where happiness comes from — adding that surrounding yourself with a strong support network makes that much easier.
“We all have our peaks and troughs, we find certain times more difficult than others, but as we get older we start to understand that a lot of the joy and happiness that we all talk about so much, we’ve really got to go about figuring out a way to cultivate that ourselves,” he said.
As for what he believes needs to be done to stop at-risk young people turning to drugs and alcohol as self-medication, he said “it’s all about education”.
“I’m fortunate enough that alcohol didn’t play a role in my life growing up because my parents didn’t drink, but for a lot of others who grow up around alcohol and drugs in their life, they just see that as the norm, and unfortunately that’s the direction they go.
“It’s so important that we educate more people and build more of an understanding around alcohol and drugs so less children are being exposed to that,” he said.
To sign up for this year’s Abseil for Youth, click here.
If you need help with depression, please see Beyond Blue for a list of organisations that can help. If you or someone you know needs help, please contact Lifeline on 13 11 14.