Hugh van Cuylenburg was playing cricket for Melbourne University in Bundalaguah, three hours out of Melbourne, when he snapped his hamstring clean off the bone, collapsing in agony.
As he went down, all the 37-year-old former teacher could think about was how he was going to drive himself the nearly 300km to Geelong where, the next morning, he was due to speak to a private group about resilience.
By some miracle he delivered the talk, albeit slumped against a wall. Three days later he underwent major surgery from which he is still recovering. This is just one example of the great lengths to which Hugh will go to help Australians be mentally healthy.
“For people struggling with depression and anxiety to get out of bed every day and go and do what they do is far more extraordinary than someone with a torn hamstring getting out of bed to do what I do,” Hugh says.
The pillars of resilience
Since launching The Resilience Project in 2013, schools across the country have been paying in droves to hear Hugh’s message on positive mental health. He has presented to nearly 200,000 Australian students, teachers and parents. He regularly presents to corporates such as NAB, Vic Roads and the ABC, and more recently to every club in the NRL,10 AFL clubs and the Australian cricket team.
Prior to launching The Resilience Project, Hugh worked as a primary school teacher before taking up a position at Cricket Victoria, working with disengaged adolescents. He was also headhunted for the role of CEO of not-for-profit Step Back Think, which focuses on preventing social violence. He resigned from his post in 2015 to concentrate on delivering more than 500 presentations a year on resilience. Astonishingly, it is almost entirely a one-man operation.
The program, which Hugh wrote himself, is based on the work of University of Pennsylvania psychology professor Martin Seligman, a prolific author of self-help titles in the field of positive psychology, and writings by Barbara Fredrickson, a social psychologist at the University of North Carolina.
Hugh promotes a four-pronged daily approach of practising empathy, gratitude, mindfulness and self-efficacy to “safeguard” children against “mental ill-health”.
The sad truths
The statistics on the mental health of our youth are terrifying. One in seven primary school-aged children and one in four adolescents have a mental illness. In 2012, 54 primary school children committed suicide.
Hugh believes the increase in anxiety amongst children is a function of our modern existence. Constant use of digital applications such as email, text messages, Twitter, Instagram and Facebook, mean young brains are taking in more information than ever before. The flipside of this cognitive overload is the increased production of stress hormone cortisol as well as fight-or-flight hormone adrenalin resulting in mental fog or confusion and impaired decision-making abilities.
“As a result, we are seeing anxiety issues like we’ve never seen before,” Hugh says.
He advocates practising empathy in the form of daily acts of kindness, and gratitude in the form of gratitude journals, for the importance of meditation and mindfulness and the need to draw on one’s character strengths to promote positive wellbeing.
The strands of his program have been knitted together from Hugh’s life experiences, his upbringing and his education and research.
What gratitude really looks like
A Carey Baptist Grammar School graduate, Hugh grew up in Balwyn, Melbourne, with his father, a dentist, and mother, a teacher-librarian. It was cricket, which he has been playing competitively for most of his life, that took him to India in 2008. While there, he undertook a teaching stint at the Thiksey Lamdon School in the Himalayas, near the border of India, Pakistan and China. What was scheduled to be a two-week stay turned into six months spent with a community of impoverished children.
Hugh was immediately struck by the positivity he witnessed in these children. On one occasion, a group of kids summoned him to their playground, which comprised “two broken swings and a rusted see-saw”. Initially thinking the children were pointing out their desolation, he realised on close inspection they were grinning proudly.
“This was my first look at what gratitude actually looks like,” he says.
One child in particular, Stunzen Sherap, made a lasting impression on Hugh and became the inspiration for his subsequent research into happiness. Sherap was so proud to be the owner of a pair of shoes, replete with ends cut off to accommodate his growing feet, that he’d take them off before class. Whenever his shoes came on or off he’d point to them and call out to Hugh, “Sir, dis, dis.”
“What he was saying was, ‘how lucky am I to have shoes to put on my feet’,” he explains.
The other crucial strand of Hugh’s story is his experience living with his sister Georgia, now 34, who suffered severe anorexia from age 13.
“It ravaged our family … we were very close and mental illness like this is very tough on everyone.”
Bringing all of these strands together, Hugh formulated the question that became the basis for the Resilience Project.
“I thought, how is it that these kids who have nothing are so happy and so mentally well, yet my sister, who had everything and such a privileged upbringing in such a loving family could develop mental ill-health … what are they doing that we aren’t,” he says.
The answer was simple: they were practising empathy, gratitude and mindfulness.
“In underprivileged communities, they are very good at scanning the world for the positives, whereas in our culture we are so easily seduced by the negatives,” Hugh says.
Scanning the world for positives
Hugh, who undertook a Masters in Education, specialising in how to build mental health through resilience, backs up his program with scientific research. When people perform acts of kindness, the body releases oxytocin, a chemical that has a healing property and can mend heart cells damaged by trauma and stress. A daily practice of recording things one is grateful for rewires the brains to scan the world for positives. Practising mindfulness or meditating slows the brain down and enables people to be “present and focused”.
Perhaps the single most important contributing factor to Hugh’s success is the way he delivers his message. His presentations weave together hilarious anecdotes with powerful and moving stories from his life and travels to India, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka.
Scottish comedian Billy Connolly, whose videos Hugh watched as a boy, as well as Australian radio and television entertainer Hamish Blake, are his personal heroes in the realm of public speaking.
“To really inspire a change within an individual, you have to emotionally engage them, whether it’s getting them to laugh or cry”.
Hugh does not have the time or the resources to collect data on the efficacy of his work. But the daily emails and letters he receives from people who have been affected by his words are all the evidence he needs. As are the two to three students, on average, per talk that loiter around after he’s finished asking for his help.
After a recent talk at a private girls’ school in Melbourne, two girls approached Hugh confessing they were having suicidal thoughts. He immediately connected them with school professionals equipped to help them.
“Sixty-five per cent of adolescents don’t seek help for mental illness,” he says.
“I hope that I create an environment that gives them the courage to put up their hand and say, ‘I am really struggling, can you help me?’.”
Far and wide
Hugh’s message has now travelled to AFL clubs Collingwood, Gold Coast, Geelong, Hawthorn and Essendon, as well all clubs in the NRL, which has experienced six suicides in the last two years.
“The players live in a pressure cooker environment. They are so heavily scrutinised and the result of that is heightened anxiety,” he explains.
“When they hear the message around stopping and slowing down, and paying attention to the great opportunity they have to play elite sport, it really resonates”.
Buoyed by his success, Hugh is desperate to spread his message wider. He and a small team of primary and secondary school teachers have created a curriculum for teaching resilience in the classroom. Linked to the national curriculum, it features 30 hours of strategies for students from prep to Year 12. This year, he plans to launch an app to complement the program.
He also practises what he preaches. In the notes app on his iPhone Hugh has a page entitled “dis” in honour of Stunzen Sherap on which he journals daily on all that he is grateful for. One of those things is cricket.
“I owe everything to cricket. It has taught me confidence, self-belief, communication and the importance of thinking about others before yourself,” he says.
Despite being exposed to the heartaches and horrors that so many endure, he is “mentally fit”.
“It’s the most uplifting feeling you could have when you present to 300 kids at a time, and you see them smiling and laughing and walking away feeling really optimistic about a message around mental illness”.