At just 30 years young, the surf-loving Sydney local Sam Refshauge is CEO of Batyr, an organisation which engages, educates and empowers young people to speak out about mental health issues. From living abroad in Indonesia to heading up the management team at AIME [Australia Indigenous Mentoring Experience], Sam’s passion for helping others has fatefully led him to his new role where he is working hard behind the scenes to help start the conversation about ‘the elephant in the room’, mental health. No Ordinary Mile sat down with the young CEO to talk about work-life balance, creating a positive work environment for staff, the ultimate day-off and the most rewarding aspects of his job.
How did you first hear about Batyr and become involved within the organisation?
I got to know Sebastian Robertson, who started Batyr, through friends and work that I was doing before at AIME. About three years ago he was trying to get his idea of Batyr off the ground, trying to work out how he could make it bigger than just his one story. He ran what’s called the ‘Being Herd’ program, which trains young people between 18 and 30 to be able to share their experience with mental health or a journey they’ve lived themselves. He asked me to come along and there were about 15 other young people in a room over a weekend and everyone got up and shared their story. I got to the end of it and was absolutely blown away by how honest and vulnerable everyone was about their deepest darkest times. I heard stories about depression, anxiety and eating disorders that I’d never heard before from real people just like you and me. I thought to myself that I needed to try and do whatever I could to support Seb and get Batyr out to as many young people as possible. I believed that if we could create environments like that for thousands of young people in Australia, it would seriously change the way in which people own their stories and can deal with challenges that they go through. It was from there that I wanted to be involved and joined the board of directors. Towards the end of last year Seb told me that he was thinking about moving on from the CEO role and asked me to consider taking over from him.
"There were about 15 young people in a room
and everyone got up and shared their story.
I got to the end of it and was absolutely blown
away by how honest and vulnerable everyone
was about their deepest darkest times. "
Batyr’s point of difference is having people who have themselves experienced and dealt with mental ill health (or cared for someone else who has) talk to people who are at risk or could be struggling with similar challenges. Why do you think that has such an impact as opposed to having a medical professional or a psychologist talk to young people about the services which are available to them?
There’s definitely value in all of it. The model that we’ve got at Batyr is based on research, which came out of the US that looked at how you can most effectively reduce stigma around mental health with young people. What they found is that if you can get a peer to peer model that is delivering a targeted, local message in a relatable way then you’re going to have the biggest impact. So if you are having someone a young person can see as ‘been there done that’ within a similar age range, the message is going to be taken on far more than if it comes from a celebrity or a mental health professional who is quite disconnected to that person. It breaks down a lot of the barriers that young people put up when you are delivering a message, and we make sure that all the stories we deliver are structured in a really positive and safe way that directs young people to all of the services out there.
Yeah definitely. Before Batyr’s time places like Beyond Blue, Lifeline, and more recently Headspace and Black Dog Institute, played a really massive role in raising the awareness of mental health. As that awareness has grown there has been more models developed for identifying and diagnosing what depression and anxiety are, and what they can do about it. There has been a massive shift and the studies show towards help seeking behaviour which is great, but if you look at the statistics around how many young people get help who actually need it, only around 20-30 percent of young people who are going through a challenge with mental illness are actually getting the support they need. So even though it has potentially doubled in that time, there’s still 70-80 percent of people out there struggling on their own and not getting the help that they need. That’s why there’s this need of a balance between the awareness of the big campaigns but then those localised, specific messages through peer-to-peer contact that encourage young people to make that leap to go and get support.
"If you look at the statistics around how many
young people get help who actually need it,
only around 20-30 percent of young people who are
going through a challenge with mental ill-health
are actually getting the support they need."
Once young people graduate school or university and are out there in the working world, work-life balance is a crucial thing to people’s happiness. As CEO, how do you try to create a good working culture and a positive work environment?
The work-life balance argument is a real difficult one when everyone has smartphones now and work goes home with you. I think it’s less about a work-life balance and more about how you best balance your life. I try to bring a bit of fun and activity to what we do, for example we’re having this interview on a ping-pong table which doubles as a meeting room table. We try to do team activities at least once a month, and we do a cross-training session once a week as a team. If people are working late, they’re encouraged to take time to rest the next day. We also have a fortnightly debrief where any team member can call on another team member to have a chat about what’s going on or what they’re going through. We’ve put in structures around accessing professional support from psychologists if it’s needed for staff and have a wellbeing allowance that the team can use on anything from a gym membership to a mindfulness painting course. We create a supportive environment which encourages and motivates high performance so we’re driven to achieve what we want, but not at the expense of personal wellbeing.
"I think it’s less about a work-life
balance and more about how
you best balance your life."
Can you tell me about Batyr’s One Sock One Goal campaign?
1S1G is a campaign that schools, universities and sporting groups can take and run with themselves. By wearing the Batyr' One Sock One Goal' socks it symbolises a willingness to encourage your peers to reach out for help when they need it and to smash the stigma surrounding mental ill health. We’ve created a really out there design for our new socks and the whole idea is to attract attention, initiate conversations about mental health and encourage people to speak up and seek help when they need it. It’s a fun way to be able to tackle a conversation that’s often quite awkward with your mates.
What’s an ideal day-off for you?
Can I travel to different places?
You can do anything…
An ideal day off for me would be if I woke up in amazing surf resort with my partner Maddy, probably in Indonesia - I’ve got a good affiliation with Indonesia [Sam spent a 18 months living in Indonesia in 2009]. Have an awesome breakfast before going out during sunrise for a surf, then come back and chill out, maybe read a book. Then somehow all my mates are there and we all go out for a big lunch and enjoy some great food, company and drinks with great tunes too. Then we get transported from Indonesia over to a skiing mountain and with all my mates go snowboarding for the afternoon. Then you want to get into the après ski…have a couple of schnapps before all being transported to an awesome festival where you’re listening to the headline play and have an awesome night out, but get into bed at a reasonable time so I can do it all again the next day.
That sounds pretty epic. So what are you reading at the moment?
I’m reading The Girl in the Spider’s Web from Steig Larson’s Millennium trilogy. I’ve got a kindle so on the bus to and from work I try to not do anything but read and listen to music. I’ve also just finished reading a strategy book called ‘Scaling Up’ which is based around a couple of different business books about how you scale up an organisation. I always try to have one business style book and then one fiction which just takes me to another place.
Finally, what’s your favourite thing about working for Batyr?
This morning I spoke to the mother of a daughter who had been through one of our programs last year. She sent us an email about a month ago with the story of her daughter who had been to a program, and at the time was battling with pretty severe depression which no one knew about. As a part of the program we got the students to put the number for Lifeline in their phone, and what no one knew is that this young girl had actually been planning to take her own life.
"She was so incredibly grateful for
the little act of what we did which was
give out a phone number, and attributed
that to her daughter still being alive and
being able to sit her end of year exams."
Batyr provides preventative mental health programs for young people. If you want to know more, would like to share your story or know a school or university that would like to book a Batyr program head to www.batyr.com.au
You can connect with Batyr here:
Facebook - http://facebook.com/batyraus
Twitter - http://twitter.com/batyraus
YouTube - http://youtube.com/batyraus
Instagram - http://instagram.com/batyraus
*The Mental Health of Children and Adolescents - 2015 (Australian Government)
If you are having trouble and need to chat please call the helpful folk at Lifeline 13 11 14.