finding meaning
in vulnerability and pain.

Feature: Sean Weir of The Shaka Project

Sean Weir is a personal trainer, gym owner, and founder of The Shaka Project - an initiative with the mission to expand the conversation on men’s mental health. After welcoming his first daughter into the world, and experiencing poor mental health, Sean recognised the need for a community-centred approach to discussing men’s mental health.

The Shaka Project starts the conversation by uniting men through distinct Shaka Project clothing, with an international reach across Europe, North America and the Asia-Pacific.

Rosewell had many questions for Sean as they sat down for the conversation. There were many curiosities surrounding the public and the private, though Sean walked into the conversation with utter openness. Nothing was off topic. Sean believes that vulnerability, at its core, entails the willingness to open up, listen, and talk about anything with respect and empathy. And so he did. In a deeply candid manner, Sean reflected on his story so far, what it has taught him, and how it influenced the creation of The Shaka Project.

Around a decade ago, as a young man living in Victoria, Australia, Sean owned and ran a gym that had an active community. The community organised and participated in fundraising events, contributing to big organisations and raising awareness for matters that lied close to the heart. “It was fun and intense,” Sean shared, “and we could really see the impact that we were making on others and ourselves”. Though one moment changed the trajectory of Sean’s endeavours, as they donated a large sum of money to a big organisation and received a very generic email as a brief thanks. For Sean, this didn’t sit well. Realising that this was something he needed to change, he began the mission of determining whom and where his community could drive impact and start more conversations about mental health.

In personal low moments of life, Sean found it hard to talk about mental health with his male friends. The challenge of starting such conversations lies in the societal conditioning of masculinity - that men “should be able to push through anything, be tough and durable”. “It’s not anybody’s fault,” Sean highlighted, “but it’s how the world has adapted throughout the past 100 years”. Mental health gets put on the backburner for many men; it's become something to simply push through. Alas, everyone has mental health - whether good or bad; and not everyone has conversations about it. It is, then, Sean’s mission to enable conversations about mental health to be as normal as talking about work, football or weekend plans.

“We should be able to talk about those feelings without feeling like we’re putting a burden on each other, and without feeling that we sound a bit silly”.

Talking about mental health was a challenge that Sean faced earlier on in life. Sean came face to face with himself a few times in determining to take his life. Pointing out two pivotal moments that changed his trajectory, Sean reflected on the times when he felt saved by his brother, and a bump in the road.

Sean shared that it was his brother who refused to let him be alone during a tough evening at a hotel, when Sean locked himself in the room with, what he described, as odd peace in the moment. His brother sat in the lobby for the whole evening - looking out for Sean in a way that is now encapsulated in The Shaka Project - by being present, being available to talk to, and providing understanding and empathetic company.

“I didn’t sit there feeling guilty that my brother’s waiting for me. I just thought ‘okay, that’s fine - you do what you want’. Reflecting back, that’s just such an amazing thing my brother did.”

Perhaps in the moment, all the noise gets cancelled out.

“I feel really selfish in allowing him to sit in the lobby by himself for nine hours in the middle of the night, just in case I left or did something,” Sean shared.

“Saying ‘I’m here for you’ with only physical presence may be no easy feat, but the first step is always the act of showing up. Though sometimes, it is the least expected circumstances that make one stand back and reflect.

A pinnacle moment for Sean realising that he needed to seek help came later. “I was in a lot of bush, positioned my car in front of a tree, and accelerated,” Sean shared. The car’s trajectory was skewed away from the tree, and Sean came to realise that the front tyre hit a big ditch at high speed.

“First thing I did, which is probably the funniest part of the story, is get out to make sure I didn’t scratch my car.” Although humorous, this specific moment speaks a lot to and about the moment; in a way that, perhaps, Sean still had the will to continue with life.

Equipped with the realisation that things needed to change, Sean sought help: “I was in and out of different wards for two weeks”. It was an enormous stepping stone for Sean, though not curative. Going through mental health crises helped Sean take a step towards creating The Shaka Project five years later, in a bid to create a space where conversations about mental health could feel normal - through clothing and funding community programs. This space is created via almost non-verbal consent to engage in a conversation about mental health.

“When you see somebody wearing The Shaka Project t-shirt, jumper or a beanie, then you automatically know that person has some sort of understanding or empathy for mental health.”

“It’s almost like a permission slip, you can go up and talk to this person about mental health”.

The Shaka Project then exists to start conversations without using words. “It’s about breaking down barriers,” Sean noted, “it’s important to understand that something may be hard for you to say, but it also may be hard for somebody else to hear”. Having these conversations has rewarded Sean personally, as someone who had “a very narrow mindset about mental health” before starting the project. “I didn’t understand how many people suffer from mental health issues, especially men… This project has made me feel a lot less alone, especially when it comes to wanting to talk”. With sights set on creating a world where his children openly talk about their mental health, Sean says that starting small conversations is imperative. Perhaps it could start with asking friends what they think about The Shaka Project, Beyond Blue, or Lifeline.

“That will show who’s comfortable talking and who’s comfortable listening”. It does make sense that it may not be necessarily about having profound, deep, confronting conversations straight-up. Sometimes, all it takes is showing up, and taking small steps to being there for someone by listening, and showing that they, and their health, matters. The company is there, and the conversation will come.

Conversations like this one can be difficult for some to read. Please contact any of the following if you need additional support.

Lifeline Australia: 131 114
Beyond Blue: 1300 22 4636