Thursday, September 10 is R U OK day, a day which this year has taken on an extra level of importance, particularly for Melburnians who are now five months deep into lockdown. And while the Victorian Government have said that ‘staying apart keeps us together’ it is undeniable that the sustained effects of COVID-19 are taking a toll on the mental wellbeing of many Victorians.

The state has experienced over 500 deaths from the virus, many small and independent businesses have already been forced to close their doors for good, and those among us who already experience social isolation, are likely feeling these impacts tenfold.

There are of course many unsung heroes in our community, working tirelessly to support others in less fortunate positions. This month we chose to feature one such hero on our cover. Mathew Tyack is a current Mr Gay Pride Australia 2020 finalist and Prahran local who went on a last-minute dash delivering care packages to the doors of LGBTQI elders and others living with disability, all at his own personal expense.

“Everybody is doing it tough in Victoria, especially our most vulnerable in the community. I’ve been focusing my energies on helping others and I think that’s worked really well for my own mental health.” Mathew tells Star Observer. “In the first lockdown, it was hard for everybody, but I thought as bad as this is for myself being locked up there are people out there that need help more than myself. That’s how I came up with the idea of providing care packages to our most vulnerable in the LGBTQI community.”

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 Mathew’s generosity was made possible by the support of Switchboard, a Victorian organisation that has provided crucial support services for the LGBTQI community since 1991. In particular the organisation runs Out & About which facilitates friendship between LGBTQI seniors and peer volunteer visitors.

“It’s a small gesture but it allowed them to feel like they are thought of, and cared about. A lot of these people were isolated even before COVID struck,” Mathew continued. “You can only imagine how they must be feeling during COVID, even before lockdown 2.0. This was my way of giving back to those people who have come before us.”

Research has shown that LGBTIQ elderly are more reluctant than other older adults to reach out to healthcare providers, senior centres, and support programs, likely due to past and ongoing discriminations. A point Mathew keenly responds to, by telling us why he felt so passionate about wanting to support LBTQI elders.

“They have wisdom, life experience, and stories. They have been through tough times just like we are doing now. There is so much to learn, they are strong, these are all qualities we are finding in ourselves right now.

“My place as a Mr Gay Australia finalist, was an unexpected but great opportunity. We are all in this COVID experience which is a really uniting one my brothers and I are not competing against each other anymore… we’re now all competing together.

“I’m not on the frontline. I am not a health care worker. But I can use my voice to be able to promote the Out & About program and hopefully more people will engage with each after COVID.

“I think that there will definitely be more positives as we move into next year as well.”

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 The question remains, are Australians getting any better at asking for and accepting support from those around them Katherine Newton, CEO of R U OK?, certainly seems to think so.

“I think as a nation R U OK? is in the vernacular now, but don’t forget that’s on the back of decades of work by fantastic, wonderful individuals and support services who have worked on this narrative of mental health being just as important as physical health and about maintaining well-being.

“There is certainly still stigma out there, but that’s what we are working on now and with the government putting mental health up there with physical health, there has been a huge step forward.”

Appointed CEO of the organisation in 2019, Katherine trained as a volunteer Lifeline telephone counsellor, and has also spent time in a senior leadership role with White Ribbon, working to prevent violence against women. On the current situation faced by Victorians, Katherine offers some practical advice.

“Think about what you can control, what you enjoy and try to focus on those things. That’s the best kind of advice I can give right now. It’s a tough time. Take time to look after your own mental health, take breaks, limit the amount of media you consume

“R U OK? works best when two people know each other because there is a greater chance that the help giver is more likely to know when there is a big life event like job loss, relationship breakdown or lockdown. If you look at it from that perspective you should not assume what someone is going through or assume that everyone deals with things the same way.

“From a help seeker perspective, it’s important to recognise this is an absolute roller coaster. It’s ok to realise there are different things happening for each of us, and it’s ok to feel differently every day.”

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 Katherine continues by discussing how communities may change for the better due to the impacts of COVID-19.

“There is hope and there is always recovery. We are already seeing a greater sense of community, and the levels of empathy are going to go up because we have had an insight into what it feels like to feel isolated and lonely.”

Similarly to Mathew, Katherine believes there is much to be learnt from those more vulnerable members of society.

“They already go through these waves of emotions and tough times. What we need to do is learn from them, learn how they cope.

“It’s important that we have a community mindset around this. It’s really important that people know that others genuinely care and want to walk the journey with you.”

 One person who understands the power of sharing such a journey is music, screen and stage artist and one of this year’s R U OK? ambassadors, Barry Conrad.

“Mental health is something I’ve really battled with over the years, and it’s something I’ve walked through personally,” Conrad tells Star Observer. “Seeing the veneer of someone’s life on social media, in the clothes they wear, even in the smile they wear is not always indicative of what’s going on behind closed doors. I know that because I’ve worn those smiles and made those posts.

“The simple message of asking somehow R U OK? is so powerful.

“Just realise we are all struggling in some way. There is no one in my life that this pandemic has not touched,” Conrad concludes.

It’s ok to reach out to a friend and ask for a helping hand. That’s what friends are for, to help support each other through these times. Because life is not just all great. Life is up and down.

“Know you are not alone, that we are all in this together.”

© Star Observer 2020 | For the latest in lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) news in Australia, be sure to visit starobserver.com.au daily. You can also read our latest magazines or Join us on our Facebook page and Twitter feed.