Mind

Former Bachelor Zac Franich on mental health and kicking the Kiwi 'she'll be right' attitude

''Without that conversation, who knows what would've happened?''

By Amy Nelmes

When hunky Zac Franich's dream of competing in the Olympics was dashed in a long, messy legal battle, the former rower admits he wasn't prepared to deal with the emotional repercussions of such a major hurdle in his sporting career.

After all, he'd spent the past decade of his life learning that to be a superior sportsman, he should block out emotion and perfect his game face. It's something that many Kiwi athletes will relate to.

"There's a real misconception of what strength is and what the strength of a man should be," Zac tells Woman's Day. "Many people are brought up to not feel comfortable to talk about how they feel without it being seen as weak.

"I was like that for a large part of my life. From playing rugby at a young age, I learnt that you don't show your emotion to your opponent. You're always taught to be staunch – that was the way it was."

Zac, 28, was picked as part of a two-person team to compete in the Canoe Sprint World Championships in Milan in 2015. But his racing partner Darryl Fitzgerald wasn't happy with the selection and appealed it in the High Court.

The former leading man of The Bachelor NZ and contestant on Dancing with the Stars tells, "I suppose like most Kiwi blokes, I was like, 'Nothing can beat me,' but then this situation came along and got the better of me. It really defeated me.

"The hardest thing was the internal dialogue. A part of me was like, 'I feel depressed.' The other part of me was saying, 'You are telling me that this thing you made up in your head is beating you – what a pussy!'"

During the photo shoot for our Half It campaign, which encourages those with mental illness to share their problems, Zac credits his childhood pal Gemma Gowling for helping him change his attitude.

He explains, "Gemma has always been a good listener and when I told her how I was feeling, she said, 'I think you're depressed.' And I was like, 'OK, well, maybe I am.' Just saying that felt like half the battle. But without that conversation, who knows what would've happened?"

When Gemma, 30, lost her first boyfriend in a car crash at 17, she saw a counsellor. She admits that it saved her but also taught her the importance of being there for those struggling with mental health issues.

"It was really hard when Zac pushed everyone away because even though I like to listen, I like to fix things," says the Auckland teacher.

"But I've learnt that stuff like that you can't just fix, so I suggested seeing a counsellor, which was something I found very helpful. I thought Zac would be a typical guy and throw the idea back at me, but he took it on and went."

The mum-of-two beams with pride when she talks about how Zac is turning his experience into a positive by opening up the conversation of mental health in sport in New Zealand. Later this year, he's set to do a talk about the topic in front of 3000 people.

"From the moment I met Zac, when we were 12 at the Orewa Life Saving Club, we just clicked," says Gemma. "I was so proud of watching him on The Bachelor because he was just him and since then, he's used that platform to talk about depression and that is amazing.

"But I will admit that I was worried back then. I was worried about him, but I was also worried if I was doing the right thing. I wanted him to know that when we talked, it was in the vault and that I didn't judge him at all. But I kept wondering if that was going to be enough."

It was more than enough, confesses Zac. Just having someone to talk to helped him through the darkest patch of his life and he still counts on Gemma for a catch-up coffee on those days or weeks when everything is a bit tough.

Zac explains, "Most of us are scared we will be an inconvenience – that if we pick up our phones to text a friend that we feel down and we'd love a chat, it's going to be a drag. But really, most people out there want to help and to listen. It's about being brave and talking. That takes courage."

Open the conversation about mental health

As the old saying goes, a problem shared is a problem halved. And that is also the case when it comes to mental health struggles.

Depression and anxiety can be incredibly isolating, but the Mental Health Foundation suggests a few ways you can approach a conversation with a friend you're worried about …

1. Ask them how they're going by saying things like, "I've noticed you don't seem like yourself – what's going on for you?" And then really listen without judgement.

2. Don't try to jump in with advice or solutions. You don't need to "fix" them. Just be there.

3. Ask them what kind of help they need. They may want practical support or they might just want you to listen.

4. Always ask if they think they'd like professional help and offer to support them to get it.

5. Don't get defensive if they're not ready to korero. Let them know you're there when they're ready and suggest others who they may like to talk to.

You're not alone

✦ Mental health problems come in all shapes and sizes – one diagnosis doesn't fit all. But there is one constant: "I just don't feel like myself."✦ If you don't feel like yourself, you are not alone. There are currently 640,000 Kiwis who have been diagnosed by a doctor as suffering from depression.

Get help

Need someone to talk to?
Lifeline is open 24 hours a day: 0800 543 354
Suicide Crisis Helpline: 0508 828 865
Healthline: 0800 611 116
Samaritans: 0800 726 666

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