Paralympian Louise Ellery on mental health, sport and the brother she lost

Lifeline Australia custodian and paralympic shot putter, Louise Ellery with her dog Oogi. Picture: Karleen Minney
Lifeline Australia custodian and paralympic shot putter, Louise Ellery with her dog Oogi. Picture: Karleen Minney

A little kangaroo key ring travelled the world with Paralympian Louise Ellery in memory of the brother she'd lost.

She took it out of her pocket before each tournament, knowing no matter what, she'd done him proud.

Looking back at her Paralympics debut in Athens, Ellery doesn't think about her remarkable journey to finish sixth in the world.

She thinks of Robert, who was killed in a car crash just two weeks before she boarded the Greece-bound plane.

"Going over was a big deal because I was grieving a lot," Ellery said.

"I'd also never been away internationally in any team, but I knew Robert really wanted me to go. His wife gave me a key ring he got for me, a little kangaroo. He got it because he was so proud.

"I still have that key ring."

The 2004 Paralympics was Ellery's first time representing Australia in shot put, having turned to athletics as a form of rehabilitation from a traumatic brain injury.

In 1998, Ellery, then 21, had a major car accident in Brisbane which left her in a coma for five months.

Louise Ellery is a Lifeline Community Custodian. Picture: Karleen Minney

Louise Ellery is a Lifeline Community Custodian. Picture: Karleen Minney

The young woman was transferred to Canberra Hospital where she remained for a further four months. She would then learn how to walk, talk and eat again.

More than two-decades later, the four-time Paralympian wants her story to encourage others to see the light even during their darkest moments. "I've struggled with mental issues. I have great empathy because I kind of get where things are coming from," Ellery said.

"It's hard to be positive but you've got to keep being so. It doesn't cost anything but smiling makes you feel better and makes others smile at you.

"If you look at someone in the eyes and smile, they can't do anything but mirror you."

Since the accident, Ellery has become a Commonwealth Games gold medallist and four-time Paralympian - winning silver at the 2012 Games in London and bronze in Rio.

She retired from the sport in 2017, but has since joined the AIS' Lifeline Community Custodians program to raise awareness for mental health.

Ellery, 43, is one of 22 athletes who have thrown their support behind the AIS-driven initiative this year. They were meant to tour the country for fundraising dinners and other opportunities, but those plans were cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Ellery knows better than most how important Lifeline is given she has bipolar, battled depression and been suicidal.

The demand for the needs of Lifeline has increased during the pandemic, with the service close to receiving 90,000 calls for support per month. That's a call every 30 seconds. "The demand has gone up, but they've found donations and revenue have gone down because for a while, even the op-shops were shut because of COVID," Ellery said.

"The fundraising dinners didn't happen, where I would go and speak and give out a positive message. There are people all around the world, not just in Australia, banding together to get through this time."

Ellery wrote and co-produced a short firm inspired by her own experience in 2016, With Little Hope screened at Canberra's International Film Festival and won a cinematography award. She's also started acting, featuring in Rebus Theatre's production of A Tender Thing last year.

"[Acting] is going well. I have something to look towards and I think that's good for my mental health too," she said.

Another positive to focus on is training her pet Oogi to be a service dog.

This story Paralympian opens up about mental health first appeared on The Canberra Times.