Nicole Gibson, 22
Lives: Gold Coast, Australia
Nominated by: Lucy Richards
There’s no one quite like Nicole Gibson. A battle with anorexia in her teens transformed her life into a mission to address youth mental health issues in a new and unique way, to effect change in a generation.
Since launching The Rogue and Rouge Foundation at age eighteen, Nicole has travelled over the whole of Australia working with 50,000 young people in over 250 schools, she was nominated as Young Australian on the Year in 2014 and was appointed onto the National Mental Health Commission as the youngest ever commissioner.
Nicole’s story is about learning to trust in your ability to influence, the importance of connecting to those around you and how reframing fear can change your life.
Let’s start with some of the incredible facts of your life: you’re the youngest mental health commissioner in Australia’s history, you’re also the CEO of The Rogue and Rouge Foundation which you founded when you were eighteen years old, can you tell us a bit about the journey?
I started Rogue and Rouge when I was eighteen after a personal experience with anorexia and how I was treated by the system. The foundation was really about wanting to approach mental health in a different way. It wasn’t as talked about five years ago as it was now so it was a pretty rebellious thing to be the one to stand up and say, ‘Hey, this is something that we need to talk about, we can’t relinquish the solutions and the power to government officials or health providers because it’s actually something that each of us are responsible for.’
Initially it was a fund for families who didn’t have private health insurance because I saw that as being a barrier, in that access was really limited. So I built out that aspect of the charity for a year and a half until I had a pretty profound realisation that I was kind of feeding a system I didn’t necessarily agree with and that for my organisation to exist, it actually relied on people being sick.
This was kind of consolidated by one young girl that I met who was seeking help. She was incredibly beautiful, had graduated school, was the school captain, wanted to study psychology, the world was her oyster. But it was a different reality for her. She didn’t see any of that in herself and when I asked, ‘Where can I refer you to? What counsellor would you like to see?’ She said, ‘This isn’t about seeing any kind of therapist, what I really need is a friend.’
When I heard that, it literally felt as though the world had fallen on top of my shoulders. We’re constantly surrounded by people, people that should be our tribe and community, but we’re feeling more and more disconnected, more isolated, more judged, more ridiculed.
It was around about that time that I had an idea to travel the whole of Australia, visiting the schools in over 250 communities, to find the truth about why mental health affects 50% of Australians. At the time I was 19, I had six months left of my uni degree, working a part-time job 30 hours a week and running the charity. I had 37 cents in my bank account.
I was still a kid, I still didn’t have faith in my ability to influence…
I persisted with the idea, by then called ‘Champions for Change,’ until I got the funding and recruited a team. We were on the road for a year and we worked with over 50,000 kids. What amazed us more than anything was it didn’t really matter if we were working in an indigenous community or the CBD or the top catholic school in Canberra, when we asked kids what was the one thing lacking from their lives, they said connection. When I came back from the year away I knew the biggest way to influence young people was through education.
We put all of the evaluations that we’d gathered and we went through them one by one and based on what they said, and without any idea how we were going to market them, we began to write programs. We wrote two high school programs and offered them to the schools that we’d visited previously and there was a really solid uptake so we piloted them in 2014. These programs meant we were seeing the students for two months at a time and as I started to become a part of the community that I was working with and realised how much their stories impacted me, I started to wonder how I could take these stories and put them in front of the people that are making our decisions.
I was still a kid, I still didn’t have faith in my ability to influence but I knew that there was something in the message that was so simple so I looked into it and I found the easiest (though not so easy) way to do was to create a parliamentary friendship group. So that’s what we did and we launched the group with 140 federal members backing us. A few months later I got offered the position on the commission.
Wow! What a story!
You mentioned this idea of community quite a bit throughout your story, and I wondered what are your expectations of a community?
Actually taking time to be together for starters and having that be a priority. What are the things that we can do as a tribe? What are ways that we can intentionally engage? How can the elders, for lack of a better word, actually be listened to by the younger generation and how can the younger generation be listened to by the elders?
I guess my ideas of the community are reflected in how I work with my team where there’s no hierarchy, me as a CEO is no more important than my intern and that’s understood. It’s about getting over ourselves and then trusting that we will create the communities that are right for the people in them.
Have you come across any communities in your travels that fit the bill of being the type of community you’d like to see?
One case study was quite incredible. It was a primary school in regional South Australia and the whole way that they ran the school was project based so the young kids were assessed on the success of running the projects and they were legitimate businesses too. Every single young person had this position of leadership, everyone was considered equal, everyone had a purpose.
When we called and asked if we could present at their school, they called back and said, ‘We’d love you to come but we would like the kids to present to you.’ It was amazing to see. These guys were only like ten, eleven, twelve but the level of insight they had because they had been given the opportunity to step up, to be acknowledged at a crucial time, was amazing.
Every experience we have is impermanent…our very nature is impermanence, it always changes.
So thinking back then on your own childhood and those crucial early years, if there was one thing that you could change about your upbringing, what would it be?
I’m glad it all happened…otherwise I wouldn’t be doing this but aside guess from that I wish I had been taught that it wasn’t crazy to feel not okay. I never felt safe telling people that I wasn’t okay and I had to keep it to myself and no one should be subject to that, especially a young person. I would’ve loved alternative treatment for my eating disorder, what I went through, a lot of the time, did more harm than good and it was actually personal realisations that really allowed me to recover, not necessarily the health systems that I was a part of.
And then out of this person that you were, grew this woman who wanted to buck against the status quo and wanted to make changes where she saw the need for them, where do you think that came from? Is it innate? Were you born with this?
That’s a really good question, I think it’s a balance between nature and nurture. I remember telling my mum when I was four or five that I was here to do something big. I was very connected as a kid, always highly creative and intuitive. I would sit in my room and just write for hours as a twelve or thriteen year old which isn’t normal behaviour! [Laughs]
So there was always something that was different about me. But I also reached this point when I was sixteen, I was at my breaking point and very strongly considering taking my life. I was in pain every single day. I was about 36 kilos, so my body was hurting and I didn’t know how to make myself better and I couldn’t fight the demons in my mind and every time I went and saw a psych I would just get told I was sick.
When I reached that place, I just had a thought about 50% of other young Australians that are feeling this everyday, that have to live in pain, and I knew that I was gifted in a lot of ways and I started to recognise that I had a responsibility that was beyond me. I also realised that I had reached a level of pain that was beyond the depths of pain I could experience so it was almost like I had nothing to be afraid of anymore and I think that is at the centre point of wanting to make any change.
Are you ever afraid now?
Yes. I’m afraid of loneliness. Not that I feel we can ever really be alone but who I am as a person is just hard for a lot of people to understand and what motivates me is something that’s very different to what motivates other people. So I fear that I’ll give my whole life in service and people won’t really get where it’s coming from. I get quite afraid I’ll be alone because there won’t be people in my life that understand that the sacrifices I’m prepared to make for my message. So I fear that, but I know that’s irrational and that’s not going to be the case. I actually try to be grateful for the moments I’m afraid because they highlight to me that I have more work to do in establishing my own equilibrium.
Have you come to a point where you feel proud of what you’ve achieved?
It’s funny, I just see the achievements as a manifestation of the work that I was supposed to do anyway. I’m always like, ‘What’s next?’
I’ve just spent the last five days with seven people that I had brought together from all across the country because they’re the ones that carry this kind of work. I was the youngest there but it was such a profound experience for me. There was still a part of me before this past week that identified as the CEO of Rogue and Rouge or the commissioner or whatever so that meant that anyone who came close to my work, I felt was a threat or a little part of my shadow. But then after watching the last week unfold I felt really proud of myself. I just had this moment at the end of the retreat when everyone left and I really knew with every inch of myself that those seven people will never be the same. That was the first time I really felt like I was enough.
I’m so glad to be speaking to you just as you get back from that kind of experience.
Where do you see yourself in ten years time?
I will have bought an island and be surfing everyday. [Laughs] Not really. I think there’s a lot of work to do in terms of proving the economic value of early intervention and not just in Australia. I think we’re in a unique position because we we have a low population and we have good resources and we have a good quality of life so I think we can be world leaders in mental health. If I can be a part of that I would love to then educate other countries on how to do the same. I see myself being an influencer in an international way and definitely bridging consciousness and spirituality with politics and everyday citizens. Helping people to realise there’s a way to integrate values into politics, to create systems that serve everyone.
Let me ask you one last question, if you could take yourself back now to maybe ten years ago, well before you reached your breaking point, what advice would you give to yourself?
That every experience we have is impermanent and that our very nature is impermanence, it always changes. You cannot feel one thing or be one thing forever. You can’t have the same people in your life forever. You can’t have the same job forever. You’re so much more than what you think you are and the only way you can understand that and connect to that is to let go of trying to understand it and surrender. If you’re hurting it’s not forever.
Thank-you Nicole, you are a true star. We are lucky to have someone like you so committed to making a change in the world.
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