Linking Up with Raff

Raff is a proud advocate for positive mental health and has centred his life around making an impact in the space. After a toxic relationship breakdown caused him to spiral with his physical and mental state in 2019, he made the decision to seek out a psychologist. From that point, both a debilitating and refreshing perspective on his unhealthy relationships with family, work, substances, etc has given rise to an intrinsic quest for him to better himself, as well as others. Through this journey, he has created a social project, Balanced Blokes, which aims to normalise vulnerability, share experiments and provide tools that help males improve their mental health. In addition, he is currently working at the Australian Psychological Society and has now enrolled in study of Psychology at The University of Melbourne in order to become clinically registered (so he’s not just some random 20-something influencer anymore!)

How are you today, really?

The usual response would be “good” – but I’m actually thankful and positive today. I’ve felt really recharged. I think secretly I do like talking about myself, but at the same time I don’t. Excited but also nervy. But things are going really well, so good.

I don’t really like talking about myself either, but I feel like due to the nature of what we do, it’s important to promote ourselves and our work to raise awareness. So we’ve kicked that idea to the curb haha – but you said you’re thankful, what are you thankful for?

I am in a really good space with everything and have been having really healthy conversations.. I’m really thankful I get to speak with you about this and glad I can get to share what I’ve been doing. 

That is beautiful, I love hearing that. The feeling is mutual – it’s really special that we get to have these chats about mental health. Can you please share with us the background to Balanced Blokes and how it works?

Balanced Blokes was originally a concept called “Blokes’ Beer”. When I was at RMIT last year, doing a business degree, I was in a number of groups. I overheard one of the other group’s concept of turning a beer into a mental health awareness product and loved the idea, so I asked how I could help. We asked ourselves: what’s the quickest way to reach the largest number of males in Australia that probably won’t open up about their mental health? And the answer was beer. Still not a bad idea, but after we started Blokes’ Beer, I was doing a lot of the content and social media but it wasn’t really taking off. We did a few events – yoga, tried to organise jujitsu, and then I had a really horrific experience on a night out and it sparked something: How can I promote beer as a mental health vector when people are struggling with addictions – alcohol is the biggest contributor to mental health issues in Australia (one of) and how can I feel morally good about pushing a beer? I was so headstrong about it but after that night I realised I can’t do this anymore – I need to take it in a different direction, I needed to take my life in a different direction, I needed to take work in a different direction. 

Everything changed in that moment and I asked myself, what do I call this now? Balanced Blokes clicked in my head and was a play on words, something interesting, something catchy. The big thing for me is balance – I’ve seen a lot of people in my life enveloped in addiction, denial or so far in one extreme or another (polar opposite of not doing anything, retracting emotionally, devoid of any emotion and doing the bare minimum or going backwards). I think the key to life is having that happy medium, you know, not overinvesting in one thing where your life becomes this one external product or thing. You’re here and everything you enjoy is balanced out. If your family life is deteriorating, you still have 4-5 pillars that are strong, you still have a strong social life, positive work life that’s meaningful – you’re not doing work just to distract yourself. But yeah, that’s where ‘balance’ comes into play.

Sounds like you’re promoting all the important things in life in moderation without leaning too far in one direction, because then, very quickly, it can all come tumbling down. But what a difficult realisation to come to – whilst beer may be an easy way to reach a large number of men, with clear and meaningful intentions, and your heart’s in the right place, it’s unfortunate that beer can be abused and lead to adverse mental health outcomes.

That’s why it’s the biggest mental health vector – that’s why it’s the most popular with blokes because it’s their way of coping with emotions and sadly the easiest way to purchase a legal drug to “fix” their mental health with. Alcohol is a way to lower inhibitions and promote open conversations, but instead of just having one, it’s easy to have multiple and let it ruin you.

It’s a slippery slope indeed. You told me how Balanced Blokes came about, but what actually is it and what are you doing with it?

The aim of BB is to provide an array of actionable things that blokes can do to balance those pillars in their life, become more aware and figure out where those imbalances are. What I’ve figured out is that what seems to be working well is the indirect help. Because it’s very difficult for a guy to have a direct conversation with another bloke and open up about their struggles, whereas if they get indirect help, it’s easier for them to open up. They can go for a run with a mate and speak about difficult things, access all this content online, have that aha moment with a certain article, video, technique or practice, have an accountability partner or join in a session and get asked “how are you going?”; “thanks for coming to this session, I want to make sure you’re doing this practice and hear how it goes next time.” 

I want to help people who are where I was and who aren’t aware of their habits, their acceptance of who they are, their ego – just blindly going through life following the same cyclical patterns. I’m hoping that what I can do with BB is keep providing indirect content, supporting people where I can and hopefully creating more people like myself who want to share these techniques and connect with people like you or I – that’s the big thing with all of this. I’d like for BB to be one of the big players like Movember, Push for Better or Mullets for Mental Health. Just working out what BB’s “thing” is – I’m still unsure, but slowly working it out.

What do you mean by “the thing”?

I think you can get lost in impact – you can sort of get lost how you’re helping in that space, how you set yourself apart or what’s going to reach the largest number of people and improve their mental health in a short period of time. That’s the thing in my mind, but what is it? Cos it’s so intangible, it’s not something like McDonald’s – they can realise how big they are by how many stores they have in the world and their impact is felt by how many burgers they sell. But mental health is intangible, so just trying to work out where BB sits and how it can make an impact and what sets it apart from everything else – that’s something that I’m working through as I’m doing it.

That’s a strong point because statistics aside, mental health does impact everyone in the world in some way, shape or form, at various stages through life. So, you can’t have a solution that serves everyone in the world. It sounds like finding your niche is part of the journey that you’re on. Just from the content already, it seems like you’re targeting and forming a community with university-age, young professional males. Would that be right?

Yep, that’s the aim. My demographic is probably 18-35 changemakers – the people that want to become self-aware. There’s individuals that cannot be helped – I think everyone in life can be helped but some people are in so much denial that you could hit them across the face with a baseball bat and they still wouldn’t make a change. 18-35yo blokes are who I really want to impact first and also anyone that has a bloke in their life that is struggling with mental health in any way, shape or form. Our audience is also composed of a lot of girls that have struggled with their mental health or have had someone like their dad or their partner struggle. If you’re able to show someone close to you that you’re willing to support this endeavour, they become an accountability partner. It’s like “I’m gonna take care of my mental health ‘cos they view it as important, so I view it as important” or “I respect and love them so much so I’m gonna make a change because they’re supporting me indirectly in that way.” So that would be the demographic – 18-35 changemakers that are aware, that want to do something.

It sounds like you’re cultivating a community of ambassadors for a change in the way that conversations start and are held between men and between women and the men in their life who are battling with mental health. It’s really wholesome. The content that you push out is always so varied and compelling, so my question is how do you keep the creative juices flowing, how do you manage to be creating and producing such consistently unique content?

First off, I really appreciate you saying that. Since I first started talking on camera, I’ve always been self-conscious about what people think of me – just in general as a human being, I both worry all the time about what people think of me and I also enjoy the hell out of validation – teensy bit of an attention whore. So that’s what keeps it going: I really love engaging and entertaining and making people giggle. Finding ways to do that through my content in regards to mental health and wanting to do that and be cheeky as opposed to “Uh, I have to get up a video of me in an experience I had recently.” Instead, “I had this embarrassing experience recently, I think it’s hilarious, which can be tied into mental health in some way, shape or form.” That’s what goes up. Or if I find something seriously engaging – like Andrew Huberman is someone who I really look up to as a neurologist and researcher. Whenever I chime into his podcast I have this “aha” moment – I think this is really cool and I need to share this. 

So I don’t have any strict rituals on what I share, because as soon as I have any restrictions or rules on what I post, I lose the fun, the magic and the enjoyment out of doing it. 100%, there are some weeks where I don’t feel like putting up any content. I’m not in a space where I’m engaging, I’m learning, I’m going through a rough patch or whatever and it starts to get to me. I think it’s just about maintaining that baseline level of self-care so that you have got the energy and positivity to be making content, to be in your happy, personable space where you can be on camera and you can engage with people and have these healthy conversations. Anything can be content. This can be content – chopping this up into little increments is so cool. People would find that awesome, I’d watch something like this, I think it’s very engaging. I don’t know, me ranting for 15-20 minutes can get a little bit dry – 100%. I was speaking to my mate Max who does a lot of the BB stuff with me – he’s amazing as a human being – and we were having a chat about what else we could do. We want to do a “hot ones” challenge with the spicy sauce and chicken. The last dab is like 2 million scovilles in heat and maybe we then talk about something related to mental health but we’re just dying with hot chicken in our mouths! And then having a conversation in an ice bath or having a warzone tournament and having the prize money going towards mental health, or party with a purpose, which can all be turned into content in some way, shape or form.

That’s wonderful, because you’re not working hard at creating content then from the sounds of things. Because it’s organic, it’s natural, it’s spontaneous, it doesn’t have to be a chore – it’s you – you’re literally the face, or one of the faces of BB. That’s why people can connect so meaningfully with the brand because they see your unique and authentic self. Love that. 

“People don’t buy products, they buy people.” When I translate that to impact, no one else can replicate you but you – your stories and your experiences… they’re more interesting to everyone than recycled content or stupid, flashy ads. 

It’s a great test to see what people want – they want the original Raff, what you see is what you get. What does it mean to have started something so meaningful like BB? What does it mean to you?

It’s almost pure bliss to think that this could eventuate into something that I can do full-time and make an impact with. It’s just so weird to think where I was a few years ago – in a really open and vulnerable sense – I was living with my dad and I’d break down in front of him. I was so unhappy and questioning my life and what I was doing and had no pathway – now this, tied in with Pandles and meeting people like yourself, just connecting with people on something I’m really passionate about, and able to make content about it – I’m truly in a really happy and healthy place. Yeah I’ll have down weeks, but I can’t believe I was that human being a few years ago and now I can smile doing all this. So that’s what it means to me to be doing BB – I’m super thankful for it – it gives me a sense of pleasure and achievement which is what I think a lot of people need or want in their life. I just hope I can do something with all this full time and keep it going. So that’s what it means to me. It’s awesome.

Mate, thank you for sharing that so candidly. “Pure bliss” – that’s so beautiful. And you will, you will do this full-time because you’ve got a heart of gold and people will want to engage with you when they see the amazing impact you’re making. You talked briefly about your experience with breaking down in front of your father and coming along that journey from that dark place to where you are today. How has that changed your perception of what mental health is and what does mental health really mean to you?

So, this is something I didn’t get to ask Maureen in the Finding Resilience session – big shoutout to that – why do some people have to reach such a dark and awful pit of despair to change anything about themselves? Because it took me tearing my ACL off the bone, a toxic relationship breakdown, the virus, awareness of toxic patterns in my family and still being aware of all that stuff and still going into self-destructive, toxic spaces to the point where I’m like “this needs to change”, where it was a slow progress out of the pit of despair from there. But what is interesting is that I could’ve easily gone one of two separate ways – I view it as a fork in the road and I think it could’ve been so easy to go down that path of “I’m just going to do everything under the sun to destroy myself, to deny everything that I’m going through and go down the unhealthy path – I don’t care anymore. I’m just going to eat whatever I want, do whatever I want, party all the time.” 

What I think is important for people to realise is that everyone has their own fork and it’s important to ask yourself “which path am I going to take?” The easy path is to become self-destructive and deny everything. Take the hard path. I don’t know why I took the hard path and why I pulled myself out of things, I don’t know why my ex-housemate was my accountability partner for meditation and I have no idea why I chose that path even after all of the psychology sessions I’ve been through. But I’m just thankful that I did and I think if more people can choose this hard yet positive path earlier, many things in their life will improve. Like, instead of driving home from a late night gig and getting an HSP, choose the hard path in that scenario and attach it to a big “why”. “If I have a 2am HSP, I’ll wake up with my insides churning and my heart on fire.” Mental health is being able to take life’s experiences and translate them into something positive and be grateful and go on a path that will challenge and help you in the long run, instead of getting you instant gratification in the short term.

As you were talking about entering the pit of despair before bouncing back, it reminded me of my own experience. In many ways, I experienced something similar – everyone’s dark place is different but if you don’t use the strength within you to independently make a change before that wake-up call, that wake-up call will come and hit you really hard and will be what shakes you out of your stupor. It could be the very thing that triggers a change in behaviour because the last thing you may want is for a wake-up call like that to happen again.

Many of us may have this “wake-up call” and bring ourselves back out of the pit of despair. But if we could go back in time and stop this wake-up call from happening, would you? Because I wouldn’t.

No chance. But why do you say you wouldn’t?

Well, my big thing is that I don’t want anyone to be put in the same situation that I was. But my dark place and awful circumstances have created all of this – those pivotal points have cascaded in this experience where I get to chat with you about mental health and enjoy this work. I said to you earlier that this is “pure bliss”. So then, is it unhealthy to be stopping people and giving them advice before they enter that pit or difficult point in their life? However, some people that enter that pit end up taking their life. That’s why I don’t understand why there’s such a fine line between letting someone go too far down the path and just being there with them through those difficult times. And I suppose I can tie that back to balance.. in a cheesy way.

Haha we’ve come full circle. To that point then and to wrap things up Raff, what would you tell a young man who is struggling right now?

You are exactly where you need to be and there is so much positive stuff ahead of you. It doesn’t matter how lonely, upset or sad you are or how difficult things may seem at this point, you’ll be able to overcome it one day and it will be the greatest thing you will have ever done. I sit here today as a young man who was sad and alone and felt like he couldn’t cling to anything and now I feel incredibly positive and happy to be alive and supported by amazing people. Don’t pick the easy path when you get to the fork in the road, pick the hard path because it will end up being the most positive one in the end.

We acknowledge the traditional owners and custodians of the land on which this interview took place, the Wurundjeri Woi Wurrung peoples of the Eastern Kulin Nation. We honour their elders past, present and emerging and recognise their significant connection to the land, the waters and the community.

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