Helping Australia build resilience through connection
Hugh van Cuylenburg found his keys to happiness while teaching in India – now the Resilience Project is taking those lessons to thousands of Aussies virtually.
The big question
When his younger sister was diagnosed with a mental illness in 1997, 17-year-old Hugh van Cuylenburg had just one question:
What makes people happy?
“It wasn’t about my sister, it was about my mum and dad and little brother,” Hugh says. “It was the first time I’d seen my parents really unhappy, and I felt a responsibility to bring joy to everybody’s lives.
“It took me 10 years to find the answer to that question.”
Making life better
According to not-for profit national youth mental health foundation headspace, 74% of young people surveyed said their mental health worsened after the COVID-19 outbreak. And it doesn’t stop there. According to Dr. Ruth Vine, Department of Health Deputy Chief Medical Officer, Lifeline received a record 3,326 calls in a single day in September 2020.
The Resilience Project is trying to lower some of these numbers. Co-founder Hugh and his team share emotionally engaging stories to teach wellbeing strategies built on gratitude, empathy and mindfulness.
The Resilience Project has reached more than 1,000,000 Australians through in-person and online presentations, wellbeing journals and the TRP app. After initially focusing on youth mental health, the program has expanded to present to more than 500 workplaces and professional sport teams.
The key to a happier future
After initially studying neuropsychophysiology at uni, Hugh realised he wanted a job that let him reach more people. So he became a primary school teacher.
After three years of teaching, Hugh went to a remote region of India to teach conversational English. It was there he found what makes people happy.
“About 30 minutes into my first day, I met a kid and just thought, ‘I’ve never seen joy like this before,’” Hugh recalls. “We were in a deserted part of the world with no running water or electricity, and I just didn’t understand it.”
Hugh learned the key was practicing three things each day: gratitude, empathy and mindfulness.
A few months later, he returned to Melbourne for post-graduate study. It confirmed what he’d seen in India.
“There was years of research and science screaming at us – if we want to feel happier and improve our mental health, we have to practice those three things.”
Determined to make a difference
For the next two years, Hugh taught his students about gratitude, empathy and mindfulness. But he needed to do more.
“I couldn’t just limit it to 25 kids a year,” he says. “It needed to be taught in more schools – I needed everyone to do it.”
So in 2010 he left teaching to start presenting The Resilience Project. But only a handful of schools invited him to speak that year, with just a few more signing up in 2011. That winter, Hugh couldn’t even afford to buy a coffee. He thought The Resilience Project was over.
But out of the blue he received a call from a “very panicked principal” who needed a conference speaker. And he needed him in 90 minutes.
“I remember being in the car on the way there thinking it was make-or-break,” Hugh says. “If I didn’t do well, The Resilience Project would’ve ended.”
Forty-eight of the fifty-two principals in attendance booked a session with Hugh after his presentation. The Resilience Project was back on track.
Impact through greater connectivity
By 2018, The Resilience Project had a two-year waiting list for presentations. Hugh and the team had to turn down opportunities to help in remote regions because of travel time.
“I felt awful saying no, especially because they often needed help the most,” he says. “We needed to create something that reached people no matter where they were and how much money they had.”
When COVID-19 hit in 2020, social distancing restrictions prohibited in-person presentations. The Resilience Project needed another way to deliver its message at such a vital time. The team shifted to online Zoom presentations, which expanded its capability through the power of connectivity.
“It usually takes six hours to prepare and run a 90-minute in-person program,” Hugh says. “Now I can do four presentations a day online.”
The Resilience Project experienced its biggest year of growth in 2020. Hugh says the team is now delivering a digital program to 120,000 Coles employees – 20 times more than the project’s previous program participant record.
Progress in mental health
Hugh says making progress in mental health service delivery is more important than ever.
“We’re losing the battle,” he says. “There are incredible people doing amazing things, but mental health statistics aren’t improving. We need to keep finding ways to get emotionally engaging material to as many people as possible.”
A three-year study by the University of Melbourne showed The Resilience Project improved students’ mental health. Hugh says it’s even more important to reach young Australians after the disruption of COVID-19. And he believes The Resilience Project can play a huge role in recovery.
“We can deliver programs in every school in the country in the next 3-5 years,” he says. “There are 6,824 schools in Australia, and we’ve worked with 1,500 of them. But I want to help them all.”
Proudly supporting Australians in need
According to Lifeline Australia Chief Executive Colin Seery, Lifeline received 90,000 calls for help per month from March to October. That’s an average of one every 30 seconds.
In October, AGL proudly donated $150,000 to Lifeline to support its mission to provide vital assistance to Australians in need.
We’re also proud to be the energy provider for The Resilience Project’s Collingwood headquarters, and have benefitted from the team’s incredible lessons over the years.