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'We're losing too many lives': One yarn can make the difference

Joel Thompson has been telling his story for the best part of 10 years now.

In a year of lockdowns, isolation and people unable to go anywhere, Thompson's tale might just be going further than ever before.

The NRL's School to Work program surged passed 2000 graduates late last year, with the initiative aimed at helping Indigenous students transition into tertiary education or meaningful employment after high school.

The COVID-19 outbreak and restrictions that have come with it have seen School to Work switch to Yarning Circle forums.

Thompson has been "more professional than ever before in my career" as he rehabs an ankle injury around the clock, undergoing his fourth 90-minute hyperbaric chamber session of the week to ensure he is fit for Manly's Indigenous Round clash with Penrith.

Before his latest round of treatment the Sea Eagles second-rower held court in Thursday's Yarning Circle, addressing an audience of 16-18-year-olds from right across the eastern seaboard.


Thompson's torrid early childhood around drug and alcohol abuse and domestic violence is well known.

Unfortunately his story is all too relatable for some. Fortunately Thompson's urging for his teenage audience to ask for help when needed also resonates just as loud.

Because the Manly veteran and proud Ngiyaampa man is living proof of just how much things can change.

Sea Eagles back-rower Joel Thompson.
Sea Eagles back-rower Joel Thompson. ©Gregg Porteous/NRL Photos

"I was an angry kid for so long," Thompson told the seminar.

"I couldn't express myself. A lot of men in my life growing up were hard men, tough men.

"You didn't show emotion. If I did, I copped a slap. 'Toughen up boy'.

"I suffered alone for a fair while. But getting professional help changed the course of my life. I was drinking too much, I was stealing cars and could've easily gone out of control.

"I'd never seen someone ask for help. Having finally done it, I will never get tired of speaking about it, encouraging people to keep talking, because it makes all the difference.

"We need to change the narrative; we need to keep having conversations because we're losing too many lives and seeing too many people suffer. I was one of them.

"So I'll continue to speak about it. You're not weak, you're brave to take that step."

In a year like 2020 when face-to-face conversations often haven't been possible, Thompson's message, and mediums like the NRL's Yarning Circle initiatives are more important than ever.

"People have been isolated for obvious reasons this year, and for a year 12 student, their HSC or equivalent has just been swung all over the place," Lyndall Down, who operates in the Storm's School to Work project, says.

"When we're able to meet online like this and have these conversations, and encourage people to stay connected, really does make such a difference.

"And to hear Joel encouraging young men and women to really take control of their emotions, their journey, to not let people define them, the impact just goes so far.

"It can make all the difference in very tough times for some people, being able to take stock, listen to someone who has come through so much, and at the very least stay connected when it's not possible to do that the way we normally would."

You're not weak, you're brave to take that step.

Joel Thompson On seeking help

For Thompson, fronting up and having a yarn is second nature.

He's seen Latrell Mitchell and fellow Indigenous stars rally around each other in the face of racism.

And just as importantly, everyday people make the most of their lot in life.

"I pulled over at the pie shop in Goulburn recently on my way to Canberra," he laughed.

"No Manly trainers around, so I'm getting stuck into my pies thinking I'm safe.

"And this bloke pulls up a chair next to me and starts yarning about The Mindset Project (Thompson's own series of workshops he set up in 2012).

"He wanted to thank me, because he said he went and got help and started speaking to someone professionally after listening to me talk about it.

"'It made me a better father, a better husband, I changed parts of my life I needed to after watching you do the same', he said.

"Knowing someone's kids are going to be in a better spot with their dad being a better father, that's inspiring."


Acknowledgement of Country

Melbourne Storm respect and honour the Traditional Custodians of the land and pay our respects to their Elders past, present and future. We acknowledge the stories, traditions and living cultures of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples on the lands we meet, gather and play on.