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Social Media & Mental Health with RUOK? Ambassador Barry Conrad


Social Media & Mental Health with RUOK? Ambassador Barry Conrad

Felicity Cohen: Hello, I’m Felicity Cohen. I’m so excited to introduce you to my Wellness Warriors podcast. For over 20 years, I’ve been a passionate advocate for helping thousands of Australians. Find solutions to treating obesity and health-related complications through surgical intervention and holistic managed care.

My podcast is dedicated to all the people past, present, and future who have helped shape my journey and continue to inspire me to work consistently to achieve a healthier Australia for both adults and future generations. I hope you enjoy it.

Welcome to the Wellness Warriors podcast today. It is my absolute pleasure to introduce you to Barry Conrad. Barry is a Sydney-based actor, he’s appeared on Neighbours, currently, I think he’s on Home and Away, according to some of my staff who are absolute followers, they’ve been telling me all about it! He’s a singer-songwriter and really a man of many talents, and a proud ambassador to a number of brands, including RUOK?, Mitsubishi Australia, Virgin Active and Kawai Australia. So away from the entertainment scene, he is a digital content creator with a really diverse audience and strong engagement and your social media following, they’re really passionate about wellness across mental and physical health in particular. 

Barry, welcome, and thank you so much for finding the time to join me today. 

Barry Conrad: Thanks so much for having me, Felicity. It’s great to be here. 

Felicity Cohen: You have a really holistic view of wellness and that comes through really clear on your social media. You talk about mental health and you’re very open and supportive of your followers. But you balance that with quite a serious look at physical wellness, staying in shape and being active. I think that’s quite an unusual voice for a TV star, how do you find that balance in the external wellness? So staying in shape and with your appearance, and also, you know, in contrast with your internal wellness and mental health? 

Barry Conrad: Wow. Well, you know, ever since I was a kid, I’ve always had genuine curiosity and passion for health and fitness. It’s a curiosity and passion that I thankfully still have now, and it energises me. So it’s not something that I feel is a chore and it’s something that’s really always been an anchor for me through the ups and downs of like the industry, it’s an entertainment industry and whatnot. Mental health is a real priority for me, to be honest, I think they go hand in, with mental and physical health, and I think balance, I feel like the meaning of balance as well is different for everyone, and for me, what’s external is really the tip of the iceberg, but I feel like if there’s no foundation there, then, you know, I think that’s not really sustainable. So mental health and really focusing on wellness is everything.

Felicity Cohen: You have such an incredible voice and you’ve leveraged, I guess, your following to really inspire others, especially in that wellness space. What actually drove you to really move into elevating your role and, I guess, notoriety to drive that opportunity to inspire others? 

Barry Conrad: You know, as a kid, I came from a bit of a turbulent family, and the household wasn’t very encouraging. So for me not having that inspired me to give that, you know, rather than the other way around and sort of victimising myself and becoming, you know, accepting that I wanted to take that experience and give people positivity and hope. And I’m not trying to be a role model, it’s just sort of a natural vent that I have now, and if there’s a way to encourage someone, it doesn’t really cost that much, you know, and in what I do, and even what you do, like the platform that we have is much bigger than probably what we could have hoped for. And so to use that, to not use that for, you know, a way to encourage people would be a bit of a shame, you know what I mean? So it’s just something that I love doing and it comes naturally, and yeah.

Felicity Cohen: I love that. So what were some of those childhood experiences? Can you give us a bit more in-depth insight into, whether was it an isolated trauma? Was it actually a whole host of evolving events throughout that early part of your life that have shaped who you are today? 

Barry Conrad: I was born in Cape Town, South Africa. I’m not sure if anyone out there knows that, but I came from there, it’s a long way from Australia, and I grew up in a household where vulnerability, or, you know, going after your dreams and whatnot, wasn’t really encouraged. My mother was a real pillar in our house, but, you know, I was told, you know, “you couldn’t be anything, you can’t do this, you can’t do that” so having to unlearn that and work through that is incredibly hard. So I had to eventually after we moved to New Zealand, I left there and moved to Australia with a group that I was in, I was in a hip hop, singing and dancing, break dancing crew, and we moved to Australia and it was like very exciting, new place, new opportunities away from that chapter of my life.

And from there to now has been a daily unlearning, unlearning, undoing, undoing, trying to get away from that and realising that I can achieve my dreams, I can go after my goals, I can be something, and it really just inspired me to go that way rather than stay there. I think it’s so easy to park there when you’re told that, but moving here and surrounding myself with people that encourage me has been huge. And I think the company is everything, as I’m sure you know. 

Felicity Cohen: It’s incredible how that negative experience and having someone or people or environments who drum into you that you can’t and using that as the absolute powerful kind of opportunity to turn that around and to continue to tell yourself that yes, you can, that anything is possible, and often some of the people who are the most successful around us and in the world, right throughout history have been through that negative experience where they’ve been told, “no, they can’t amount to anything.” So congratulations on, you know, really standing up for yourself and becoming a voice for yourself as well and showing others that yes, you can be successful in achieving whatever it is you want to achieve in life in general. 

Barry Conrad: Thank you. 

Felicity Cohen: So growing up in South Africa, you’ve had, you know, transitioned through New Zealand and to Australia, but you recently went back to South Africa. How did you actually find, you know, revisiting your roots and what was that experience like for you with, you know, it can be a bit of a spiritual experience when you do return to your roots and your homeland, what was that trip like, and did you come away learning something specifically an about yourself and how you’ve evolved? 

Barry Conrad: Absolutely. I hadn’t been back to Cape Town in 23 years! Cape Town is my home city, and so going back there as an adult now, it’s almost like, it felt like a massive puzzle piece clicking into place, I don’t know if that makes sense, it just made sense to be there. Just your roots and it was inspiring, it felt like a feeling of reconnection. I’ve come away feeling a new sense of peace, hope, joy and motivation to go after my goals even more than before. I definitely also found a new perspective because going there’s such a vast, just this canyon between just poverty and riches and just seeing people that don’t have very much, it was a stark reminder. Like, man, we have so much in Australia and that was one massive thing that I come away from feeling gratitude and just really leaning into that and saying, “I have so much, and I just want to keep going after what I want to do that hopefully I can do more with what I have for other people.”

Felicity Cohen: Definitely relate to that sense of gratitude, and I can totally understand what that kind of total diversity looks like in South Africa. It’s actually one of the best places I’ve ever visited and really one of my favourite ever holidays that I’ve had with my own kids, Cape Town is an incredible place, I remember staying somewhere where I could actually wake up in the morning and the view was of Table Mountain, it was just spectacular. 

So what a beautiful town to return to, but yeah, the total comparison between rich and poor is very, very profound in South Africa. And yeah, I totally relate to feeling that sense of gratitude and that’s what travel and experience give us through life anyway. So yeah, I can only imagine that that would’ve been a really powerful experience for you.

Barry Conrad: When did you go to Cape Town? 

Felicity Cohen: So it was actually a few years ago. It would’ve been around about 2017–2018, so haven’t seen what has been, you know, evolved over the last few years and only hear a lot about how difficult life through the pandemic has been like for people in South Africa. Yeah, just that vast contrast of change too. So don’t know what it’s like for people living there right now, but I can only imagine it’s been a pretty difficult time, politically as well. 

Barry Conrad: Definitely. On the flip side of that, just going to the, like the Kapama Game Reserve, and the safari was just amazing, it’s amazing! Like the elephants, and the lions, just being around nature is nothing like it, it’s amazing. 

Felicity Cohen: Absolutely. Oh, it’s beautiful. Absolutely love it as a country to visit can’t recommend it highly enough. 

So where does your passion for mental health and supporting others come from, and why did you choose to align yourself specifically as an ambassador for RUOK?

Barry Conrad: Well, a few years ago now, probably around 2017, I went through a really hard time with my mental health. I struggled a lot to the point where it’s quite debilitating. I felt sadness, I couldn’t explain why, there was a lot that had been happening in my life, I had lost my second mother to cancer, which is a huge deal for me, and she was quite a spiritual woman, and so that was confusing for me to reconcile, how she, the spiritual woman and yet she’s gone and you know, it really, it was a massive blow. That was a catalyst, as well, I was touring a lot at the time, doing a lot of musical theatres, not really prioritising my mental health that much, if I’m being honest and just living in more, going through the motions a lot more, working a lot, and I think with me when I’m tired and wary, that’s when all the voices come in, all, you know, you’re down, your walls are down, and I hit a bit of a rock bottom there and I struggled a lot.

And I had been an ambassador for RUOK? already, but that was a real turning point, for me to say, “hold on, don’t just focus on like the veneer, like what people can see on stage, whatnot, what about you, you know, take some time off for yourself, you know, reconnect with yourself” and for me from that point onwards, I really communicated with RUOK? saying, you know, “how can I get more involved?” So I’d go on their trips, I’d talk to kids in schools, different events, and it’s important, I think people need to know, you know, mental health is as important as physical health. 

We always see, you know, lose the weight, build the muscle, look this way, look that way, which is great, and also the other token, what about your internal health? I think that’s just as important and it’s not, I feel like the stigma isn’t as bad, but we still have a ways to go in terms of normalising that a bit more. And so for me, anytime I can speak out in it, not in a preacher way, but in a way that is just relatable. Like I’m just a regular dude, you know, that struggles from time to time and, you know, admit that I have to work on that just as much as I have to go to the gym and work out, you know.

Felicity Cohen: Absolutely. What are some of the coping strategies that you put in place to better manage your own mental health on a daily basis? I’ve seen on your Instagram, that you’re a bit of a fan of infrared saunas, which is really great for mental health, are there other things that you kind of really start to look towards to help you stay balanced on a daily basis?

Barry Conrad: Well, first of all, it’s I love that you saw the infrared saunas. Do you use that at all? Do you use red light therapy or not really? 

Felicity Cohen: Oh, I think red light therapy is amazing, definitely! And I like to incorporate a whole host of different modalities when it comes to holistic health management. So from a mental health perspective, there are so many different things that we can look towards and I love to exercise. So I’m big on my exercise, meditation and mindfulness and breath work, and lots of different things that I’ve personally incorporated into my own wellness on a daily basis. Yeah, so what are some of the things that you like to do? 

Barry Conrad: Well, what I love to do is, first of all, first thing in the morning, check in with myself. Check-in with myself and try to be as present as I can be for that day, and I’d like to say, “be here now” very simple, “are you here now? Be here now.” I don’t reach for my phone first thing, that is a huge thing I had to learn the hard way! I was on the road, this is going back maybe a few years now, like maybe 10 years ago in America, and I remember waking up one morning and I reached for my phone straight away and checked Facebook and I saw this hate mail message in my inbox, just from an anonymous person with no photo, just saying, “who do you think you are” and that really threw me. But in that I learned that hold on, if I wake up and let the world set my mind before I do, that is a dangerous place to be. So from that point onwards, I’m like, okay, when I wake up, you know, I might check the alarm and that’s it, leave the phone, check in with myself, how am I doing? And how I like to do that is I hit the pavement and go for an ocean walk or run, get that ocean air going, just be present with myself, get the blood going, get the fresh air going, that’s really important for me and love working out as well, just like you. 

I also prioritise connecting with people that I love. Making time for social get-togethers, even if it’s not that long because we are all can be a bit time-poor these days, but that’s important, just checking with the mate, hanging out. Love food, love cooking. Just things like that, that make me happy and keep me centred, you know, because everything else is presentational and performative. So it’s important to have just those really simple things that keep me grounded and, you know, I need those things for my day. 

Felicity Cohen: Yeah, absolutely. I love that and I love that you leave the digital space alone first thing in the morning. And I really like that expression, be here now, be in the present and focus on setting yourself up for success for the day and staying away from your social media. I think that’s a really good thing to advise and to inspire others to do as well, especially young people who are so attached to their phones, really great message, love it, thank you so much. 

Barry Conrad: No worries. 

Felicity Cohen: There was a quote from last year’s RUOK? day, where you were referring to checking in on your friends and you said, “we aren’t afraid to be real with each other. Being there for a mate, doesn’t have to be this big daunting thing. It lets us know that no matter what we are going through, we’re not alone” and so that kind of, I think is such a really strong message that relates to you becoming part of that whole big RUOK? ambassadorship, and one of the things I think it’s really important to highlight, you know, especially with RUOK? day being such a great opportunity for people to reach out and to understand the importance of mental health, especially for men, you know, unfortunately in men, one of the highest killers for men in Australia is suicide, before the heart attack and other diseases, so significant to highlight. Talk to me a little bit about how you feel it’s important to connect with others and what are some of the mechanisms that you use to really check in, not just with yourself, but with your friends and make sure that they’re okay. 

Barry Conrad: I think it’s, Felicity, the older I get, I realise more and more that we are hardwired for connection. As we need it, we crave it as we thirst after it, and it’s so important to reach out to mates because speaking from a guy’s perspective, it’s still that, you know, you can kind of feel, “ah, maybe I’m not as much of a man if I don’t say, ah, I’m kind of not really coping this week. I’m kind of going through a hard time” and you kind of have to go against that in your own mind because of the conditioning we’re conditioned to not do that. So we are getting better, for me, I love it like I’ve got some great relationships with my male friends and we can talk freely and it’s awesome. And it doesn’t have to be this formality, like a daunting, are you OK, and let’s go through the script. It could be as simple as, “Hey man. Hey bro. How are you doing? You doing all right, how’s your week?” and depending on the answer, if it’s something like, “I’m not doing too great” you could say something like, “oh, you want to grab something to eat? You can talk about it. Grab a drink, grab a feed, just real simple, casual” and often even combining that with something active, going for a workout because I find like when you sometimes face to face, this is another thing I’ve learned, it can feel more confronting, but if you’re doing something alongside someone like a walk or a workout, the conversation flows so much more sometimes, I feel like when it comes to harder conversations. 

So I try to do that, “let’s do something active and just chat it out” and it’s so much better that way. If it’s something serious, then it’s important to encourage action. For example, calling Lifeline or getting help because it’s important to differentiate. I’m not a medical professional or a psychologist, I can definitely be there and ask the question and lend the ear, but if it is serious, it’s important to also pay attention to those cues and then encourage that action, you know what I mean? 

Felicity Cohen: I love that! We actually have a Wednesday Walker’s group that is led by our fitness innovator, who works on our team. And there’s nothing nicer than that, and I think that’s something that can just drive that opportunity for connection. It’s a walk, it’s a talk, such a great mechanism for just connecting with people, with friends and that walking opportunity, I think is probably the best place to do it. You know, even more so than just a phone call or going for a coffee, or out for a walk with your friends. 

Barry Conrad: Yeah. 

Felicity Cohen: Because it’s, yeah, really does provide that safe space, I guess, and opportunity to open up those conversations. 

Barry Conrad: Don’t you think as well, it also almost ties into the whole thought of how the physical and mental inform each other. It’s important, like getting out there and exercising, it’s just going to make you feel better, you know, as well. It really helps rather than staying inward and being isolated, getting out there, getting the air in you, being around people, being around energy, it does help. I think that they really, really do work together. 

Felicity Cohen: Definitely, and so many mental health benefits for getting outdoors. So for you, you’re probably in a studio so much of your day, so actually having that time out in fresh air, ocean walks, ocean run, whatever that looks like or getting outdoors and connecting with nature, that would completely change your day when you’re stuck indoors, and whether you’re in a studio, like you may be many days of your week, same for people stuck in offices. You actually don’t, I don’t even know what the weather’s like outside, because I don’t have time to check in and see. So yeah, that outdoor time, first thing in the morning is just brilliant. 

It’s really interesting to look at how social media has helped change the concept of wellness to become a lot more mainstream, and in particular, TikTok, it’s a platform that gives us such a close temperature gauge on how people are feeling and what’s going on in the cultural mood of the world right now. And this year, we’ve seen the trend of that silly little mental health walk which is, you know, on the surface, a fun, meme-able trend – have you actually seen it? 

Barry Conrad: It’s awesome, I love it. 

Felicity Cohen: Yeah. It’s really cool, I love the tune as well. But it’s such a cute little thing that’s become so insightful to see, you know, how people are feeling and it gives us a deeper insight into what’s going on. What’s your take on this, and how has social media helped to normalise mental health? 

Barry Conrad: Well I think social media’s a powerful tool. I think it’s done just that, normalised, normalised, normalised because it’s showing that your neighbour, your co-worker, your family member, everyone’s just trying to figure it out. Everyone’s going through something and to take that silly little walk, you’ve just taken a few minutes going around the block, going for a walk in the park, across the road from the office or the studio, having a coffee, having a chat, 10 minutes, 30 minutes, it’s going to make you feel so much better. And it’s really de-stigmatising the whole thing, you know, as well, which I think is awesome. And I think social media is such a powerful tool that’s helping to do that. What do you think about it? 

Felicity Cohen: I love that whole thing, that movement on TikTok and watching that silly little walk and watching people do that, I think it’s really funny and it’s cute, but it’s also definitely showing a connection because more and more people are buying into that whole space where they’re talking about, you know, this is about my mental health and it might be just a silly little walk to you, but hang on a second, this is actually helping my mental health and it doesn’t matter whether it’s someone who’s walking around the office or getting out with their big thick, you know, coat and walking through snow and making it kind of cute and relatable. 

Barry Conrad: Yeah. 

Felicity Cohen: Yeah, it’s a really cool, interesting trend. Fascinating to see how using those platforms of social media can actually provide that open space for conversation as well, and teaches us a lot about how we can communicate with others on a whole host and range of social media platforms. 

Barry Conrad: I think so as well, I’m still trying to get my mojo on TikTok, I look at it more than I post now. I’m more of an Instagramer, but what about you? Are you more of a TikToker or an Instagramer or Facebook?

Felicity Cohen: Well, I’m learning. I mean, like I’m probably outside of the demographic, so it’s harder to learn, but I’m getting there. So one of the things I did earlier this year to launch my TikTok platform, I actually did a program called 75 Hard, I don’t know whether you’ve heard about it, but it’s 75 days of doing two 45-minute exercise sessions, one of them has to be outdoors, so two a day, and then you have to drink a lot of water. You have to really focus on eating really well and cut out all refined sugar, and you need to read a self-development book. So I documented my journey of 75 Hard on TikTok. So that was really my whole opening to that space and learning how people connect and communicate on TikTok. So, yeah, takes a while. It’s very different to Instagram, but it’s actually a lot of fun once you get used to it. 

Barry Conrad: Yeah. Well, I’ll have to get some points from you after this. 

Felicity Cohen: I’d love to give you some.

Do you have any routines or practices outside of the mental and physical health space that are part of your wellness routines? So things that might be spiritual, emotional, environmental, or intellectual, what other kinds of wellness practices do you like to engage with? 

Barry Conrad: Yeah. I volunteer once a week at a place that makes meals for the less fortunate. I find that it’s powerful because the best thing you can do to get out of your own head is to help someone, and for me, that’s been huge. Like you gain a fresh perspective, you immediately feel better and you’re helping someone. So that’s one thing that I do that is something that I prioritise every week, at least one day a week, and it’s not something that I post about or anything like that. It’s just something for me, so I’m not going to say the place, but it’s just, that’s what I do. 

And then also once a week at least, I also have a day where I seek out deliberately a good news story. So it could be an inspirational story or just a good news story, and it helps me to, again, with everything happening in the world, that’s mayhem and injustice, it reminds me that it is good in the world and that’s important as well because with the media is all you see is the bad stuff, well, a lot of the time, so it’s important for me speaking for myself to seek out that good news story. 

Yeah. What about yourself? 

Felicity Cohen: So many different things. For me, I’m yoga, and meditation, are two of the things that I really love to do, and I definitely need to find room for something that’s a yoga class every week. And I love to read, so I’m an avid reader and if I’m not sleeping, I’ll typically be reading a book because that’s a really great space to get lost in and to learn and to open your mind to other things and to stay away from digital media as well, so for me, reading’s a big thing when it’s not exercising.

I do love the idea of finding time to connect as a volunteer where you are helping others, I love that, you know, and doing more that’s in a philanthropic space, I think is something that we could all be doing something more of, and yeah, I guarantee that when I have more time on my hands, maybe when I’m retired in another 10 years or so, more philanthropy, because I feel like, you know, giving back is also so rewarding. 

Barry Conrad: Also, I have to say I’m a singer-songwriter as well. So I’ve got this piano behind me from Kawai Australia, and for me getting lost in music and writing and playing, that is that’s therapy, it like feeds my soul. So that’s a huge part of my day.

Felicity Cohen: Oh, I love music therapy, that is spectacular. How do you describe your style of music? 

Barry Conrad: I would describe it as, you know, commercial pop music with a soulful edge, you know, it’s quite thoughtful lyrics, but it’s still accessible. It’s pop, yeah, pop RnB, pop-soul, yeah. 

Felicity Cohen: That’s exactly how I would’ve described it, pop soulful. Really cool and you’ve got a beautiful voice. 

Barry Conrad: Thank you very much. 

Felicity Cohen: Finally, our listeners are all Wellness Warriors, and we know that wellness is worth fighting for. Once you lose your health, you spend the rest of your life fighting to get it back, whether it’s physical or mental or spiritual health and something that’s really always inspiring to learn is how others are going on their wellness journey.

So my last question, Barry, for you today, can you share with us a time when you were really struggling with your wellness and what did you do to fight for it or reclaim it? 

Barry Conrad: One of the hardest times in my life was in 2000, again, 2017. I had an issue with my leg, my left leg and the blood wasn’t flowing to my heart properly. So I had surgery on that leg and during the bedrest, it was about 10 days, I had actually had a clot dislodge and shoot up to my right lung and killed off half of my right lung, I had a pulmonary embolism and I almost didn’t make it. I was actually at a cafe, had to get a haircut, there’s sort of a barber shop attached to this cafe, and I finally could get my jeans back on, I was out of bed. I was like feeling good, went there and as I got out of the chair from my coffee, I felt this stabbing pain in my right side that I I’ve never felt before. With each breath that I took in, it was a stabbing pain and I knew instantly something was wrong. Luckily there was this medical centre right upstairs because it was a mall, and as soon as I went in there, it was packed out, but I think the receptionist could see, I looked ghastly and something was wrong, and I went straight to the hospital.

After a series of tests they said, “you had a clot kill half of your right lung, and if you weren’t in as good health as you are, you would not have made that.” It was like the lung equivalent of a heart attack, and that moment was so scary Felicity. It was terrifying because it was the middle of the day, and no one was around. It definitely spun my world upside down and it gave me an extra sense of purpose, and to just go for things more, to do things afraid, you know, to not have any regrets. And I think that really shifted my mental health as well because it just gave me that extra desire to live. There’s no other way to really explain that.

Felicity Cohen: Incredible. So yeah, live every day as though it’s your last and never have any regrets. 

Barry Conrad: Absolutely. 

Felicity Cohen: Thank you so much for joining me today, Barry. It’s been an absolute pleasure. 

Barry Conrad: Thank you so much for having me, it’s been awesome. Really appreciate it.

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