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This Indigenous Footy Player Came Back From The Brink And Now He's Helping Others

"I genuinely thought that the world would be better off without me on the earth".

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In his twenties Joe Williams was living a life that most young men could only dream of. A talented NRL player, Williams was charismatic, good looking and wanted by some of the best clubs in rugby league. Then it all spiralled out of control.

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"Things started to take a bit of a downturn halfway through my NRL career," Williams told Buzzfeed News. "I realised I had a problem with the drink and as well as prescription drugs and recreational drugs when I was playing footy."

Williams was playing first-grade football with the South Sydney Rabbitohs, Penrith Panthers and Canterbury Bulldogs as a halfback. But while at the top of his game, he was secretly suffering from debilitating depression and had started self-medicating.

"I turned to drugs and alcohol to mask the problems I was having in my own head. The mental health problems stemmed from years of oppression and years of racism, and also being looked down upon and judged".

In 2005, Williams gave up the drugs and alcohol but his mental health continued to deteriorate.

"I didn't live up to anywhere near the expectations people had for me as a player, and I believe it's because I was suffering from depression," he said.

Williams walked away from his NRL career in 2008 and spiralled further into a deep depression, before hitting rock bottom three years later.

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"I had a suicide attempt in 2011, and it was on the back of a marriage breakdown and then a broken relationship with another partner. Growing up I always wanted to be a great dad, I had three kids to two different mothers and I wasn’t living with any of the kids at that time, and it really hit home. When you get told you’re not worth it and that your life is no good you start to believe it," Williams says.

Perhaps the most heartbreaking moment for Williams was writing farewell letters to his children before his suicide attempt, explaining to his daughter that he would never walk her down the aisle.

"I genuinely thought that the world would be better off without me on the earth, my kids would be better off without me, so I did everything I possibly could not to be here anymore".

Williams woke up in hospital, followed by several weeks of recovery in a mental health ward. While there, he made a promise to himself to cherish life and help others.

Tara Stanley.

"I won’t go into details of what I did but let me say this; I shouldn’t be here, I shouldn’t be here today, it’s just an absolute gift that I’m still around'," Williams says.

"When I had that moment of clarity, when I came to from my injuries and then after I was admitted into a mental health ward I said to myself, 'I am not going to let life go again, I have a second chance at it so now I am to have the biggest impact on people I possibly can in a positive way'".

Williams has made good on that promise. This year he's been 10 years sober and has become a professional boxer. He currently holding the World Boxing Federation (WBF) junior welterweight title a World Boxing Association (WBA) Asian title, and does workshops with home troubled youth.

Williams says a reconnection to his Wiradjuri culture has been his saving grace.

"Looking back to when I was in that dark place I was actually longing for country and longing for culture and that was the real essence of what I was missing," he said.

"I’m back home on Wiradjuri country and I’m a bit clearer in the mind and a lot more stable at home physically and mentally. Being home on country has been a huge positive toward my healing".

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Williams, now 32, is mentoring troubled young men and has become an advocate for more honest and open discussion around mental health issues.

Kaz Tuckwel.

"A lot of these kids, unfortunately, don’t have positive role models. They don't have positive male role models at home and they don't have a father figure in their communities to put the discipline on them," he said.

Williams says young Aboriginal men in regional NSW are fast becoming a lost generation and points to the methamphetamine crisis engulfing the country as an example.

"I see it with a lot of our country boys. It’s a longing for something. They look for substances to drown out their feelings," he said.

"The jails and juvenile detention centres are just absolutely packed with Aboriginal people and I honestly believe the answer to eradicating the ice epidemic, especially in those smaller communities, is that connection to Aboriginal culture," Williams says.

And while he still battles with the "demons inside the head" every day, Williams is grateful to be alive and has ambitions to open a foundation that will encourage and help other men to speak up and seek help.

"We got to start to turn to the old ways, the old [Aboriginal] culture to eradicate the problems of mental health. By doing that we’ll produce strong family men and good role models in communities as well. There's is nothing shameful about mental health".

If you or someone you know needs help, you can call Lifeline on 13 11 14, Mensline Australia on 1300 789 978 or the Suicide Call Back Service on 1300 659 467.

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Formerly with BuzzFeed News, Allan Clarke is a NITV reporter based in Sydney.

Contact Allan Clarke at arielle.benedek+AC@buzzfeed.com.

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