When Connor Watson lost his 17-year-old cousin to suicide his eyes opened to the fragmented and puzzling reality that was the stigma surrounding mental health.
Now the Roosters utility, alongside over 200 mental health advocates including rugby league commentator Marlee Silva, are picking up the pieces and helping to build a community united in destigmatising how suicide is seen in society.
Suicide is not something people often know how to talk about, but with a puzzle piece now forever inked on his left shoulder, Watson – a board member of the Cultural Choice Association – is hoping to start a conversation and help piece back the communities that have been broken by mental health.
“Why our foundation started is because I lost my little cousin Parker and then lost an uncle as well,” Watson told NRL.com at Sydney’s Thanks Tattoo.
“Then I heard Gummy [Johnston] speak at an event about his ‘In Pieces’ and I was keen to get involved because obviously it aligns with the mission of our charity, which is around Indigenous youth suicide.
“This is obviously suicide as a whole and raising awareness for it because it's an issue that's so prevalent in today's society.”
'In Pieces' is a fundraising project raising money for suicide support charities by tattooing 250 people with individual puzzle pieces.
Together, the pieces form a larger picture, uniting participants in the cause and community.
Watson’s piece of the puzzle is about changing the narrative around Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander youth suicide, which is currently the number one killer for Indigenous youths between five and 17.
“So Gummy came up with this tattoo, which is his traditional tattoo style, and then people all around the world have gone and purchased these," Watson said.
What the pieces represent is you how through suicide, we can obviously be in pieces but for us to move forward and heal, we've got to come together.Roosters utility Connor Watson
"Mental health is an issue all across the world, but particularly in Indigenous cultures and rural communities here in Australia.
“I've got a lot of family in Dubbo and Coonamble, our family's from Walgett and sort of moved into these other central west areas.
“But that's where my cousin was, in Dubbo, so that's where it's all started for me. When we lost him, we looked at the statistics we could see it was a really big issue and we had to do what we could to help.”
With a pre-season knee injury sidelining the 26-year-old for what was supposed to be his homecoming to the Sydney club, Watson said his charity has helped him use his platform for a new purpose in 2023.
“Being injured and missing out on playing has sucked. But working with the different charities and foundations has given me another purpose to actually be a bit more hands on with it this year,” he said. “It’s probably kept me sane as well.”
“To actually get into communities and do a bit more stuff there has been epic and it's really helped me see my value as a person and not just like as a footy player, which you can get caught up in in putting all your value as a person in that.
“So it's definitely been a challenging year but it's also been a rewarding one so far.”
Silva, who has a passion for storytelling and educating Australians on Aboriginal culture, said she was taken by the concept of starting a conversation by wearing the ink of a puzzle piece.
“When it comes to talking about mental health, having experienced losing people that are important to you to suicide, you naturally have this understanding of each other,” Silva told NRL.com.
“When I heard Gummy speak at the Chumpy Pullin Foundation dinner about this initiative I thought it was such a cool idea for a campaign.
“Much to my mother's disappointment, I’m not someone who’s adverse to getting a couple of tough stickers," she laughed.
“This community building is something that we crave so much in this day and age and don’t often get so when there is opportunity to connect with likeminded people.
“If in a couple of years down the track I run into someone that also has a jigsaw puzzle, that’s such a cool thing to share and be proud of.”
If you or someone you know is struggling with mental health, know that you are not alone. Call Lifeline on 131 144 or visit lifeline.org.au for help.