Connection with others: a secret ingredient for finding meaning and purpose

Chris Henderson kissing premiership cupBeing part of a community and connecting with others can positively impact mental health and emotional wellbeing, promoting a sense of purpose, belonging and social connectedness. We asked AFL Wheelchair player for Richmond and person with MS Chris Henderson (Hendo), to share his thoughts on the impact that simply being part of something has had on his personal outlook and wellbeing.

How did you become involved in AFL Wheelchair?
I’ve played footy all my life but stopped when I got diagnosed with MS. In 2018, AFL announced they were going to launch wheelchair AFL and I rang up the radio and got on air. I spoke to the Collingwood captain coach and asked if I could play and he said I should try out.

But the reality was that I hadn’t told anyone about my MS, no-one other than my immediate family knew about it, so I wasn’t confident enough, I hadn’t even accepted my condition at that stage and so I didn’t partake the first year, I stayed away.

The following year, I was asked to try out again. I really missed the team environment and so I tried out and Richmond decided to take me. That was March 2019 – I was drafted into the AFL as a 44-year-old bloke!

Did you find that being involved in a team has had a positive impact on your wellbeing?
Absolutely. I think that being able to actively participate in anything is not only good for physical health but also mental health. 

I used to love going for a run or going for a bike ride, which I can’t do anymore, but being able to jump in a chair and go for a push and play footy is just amazing. 

We have some fun and laughs and we have each other’s backs – the camaraderie that happens in footy clubs is ever present which is really important as well. 

When I started playing wheelchair footy, it was all about me and how I missed playing. I didn’t realise what it does for other people in the team and also for the people watching, especially kids in wheelchairs who see us in chairs playing sport and wearing the colours of their team.

How did this connection with others impact you?
I didn’t really understand it to begin with but when you are playing, the amount of people you can connect with is amazing. As I mentioned before, I started off playing wheelchair footy purely for selfish reasons – because I missed footy. But then, men in their 40s with mental health struggles, people with MS, kids with disabilities and their parents, all started reaching out and connecting with me. I felt some sort of responsibility that I was honoured to have - to show people that you can get through stuff, that you can be ok. With support and with help and with the right things in place, you can come out the other side. 

People reach out and want to talk to me about MS or about how I do it all and what I do. There’s no magic bullet but I know that being able to talk is really important. I wasn’t prepared for the children with disabilities or the kids who roll up in their chairs and they want us to sign their jumper or have their photo taken. For them, the fact that they know Hendo or can see him and he’s right in front of them and he’s in a chair and he plays sport, means that it’s something they can do as well. That’s a really powerful message that I didn’t understand at the time but now I understand more and more, and I feel an amazing, beautiful honour to be someone who can maybe make a difference. 

The thought of being able to contribute in a small way to increasing awareness of MS is a really important thing that might happen out of my success in the footy field.

Do you have any words for someone who may be struggling with an MS diagnosis? 
Reach out to the MS support network sooner than I did. I was drowning for the first four months. Take a breath and it will be ok. It’s far better to be diagnosed in 2020 than in 1970. That overwhelming sense of dread about what’s happening is a natural reaction, you may have to find your new normal, but it will be ok.

Joining a community of people we can relate to is important to our wellbeing and mental health. MSL provides many ways in which to do this including our free Peer Support program and volunteer program which offer a great way for people living with multiple sclerosis, carers, family and friends to connect with and support each other. It’s also a great way to make new friends! Call MS Connect on 1800 042 138 or send an email to msconnect@ms.org.au to find out more.



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