4 min read

Former AFL Player Aids Mental Health Prevention Through New CEO Role


Former AFL player turned business entrepreneur, Fergus Watts has accepted a CEO role working for the Reach Foundation with a commitment to mental health prevention.

Established by Jim Stynes and Paul Currie in 1994, the foundation helps inspire young people to believe in themselves and strive for the best quality of life.

Reach focuses on preventive measures by ensuring Australia’s youth build the social and emotional resilience necessary to take care of their mental health and wellbeing.

Watts first engaged with the program when he was 15, at one of Reach’s ‘Heroes’ days.

The day brought together around 500 year nine students and helped them understand who they are, how to face challenges, and how to foster deeper connections with their peers.

Following his first experience with the foundation, Watts remained heavily involved with Reach and even spent a large chunk of his sporting career delivering workshops while playing professionally.

At 15 he became a recruiter for the program before stepping onto the board a few years ago and now moving into the CEO role.

Due to a spade of injuries, Watts retired from his AFL career and founded one of Australia’s most successful independent marketing agencies, ‘Bastion Group.’

Now, after leading and growing the agency for over 11 years, Watts said he was ready to move on to a new project.

Watts told the Ministry of Sport: “Around two years ago I realised I wasn’t the right guy to run it [Bastion] anymore.”

“I specialise in growing businesses and the entrepreneurial side of a business, and now that Bastion has gone through its stage of rapid growth and has reached a stable point, I realised it needed a different type of leader, so I stepped down from the head role and started looking for different projects.

“At first I struggled to find something I was passionate about, I’d already been on the Reach board for around two years, then this CEO opportunity came up and I knew it was the right role for me,” Watts explained.

Watts said the main goal of the foundation is to prioritise prevention tactics rather than intervention methods when combatting today’s mental health crisis.

“30% of Reach’s work is intervention work, whereas 70% of our work is preventative work,” Watts said.

“We want to help students develop the social and emotional resilience skills necessary to prevent them from needing mental health intervention in the future.”

Watts said the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted today’s ineffective methods of combatting mental ill-health, stating prevention is the key to circumventing mental health issues within Australia’s adolescents.

“When you look at the amount of funding being allocated to aiding mental health, 98.5% of all funding goes toward reactive intervention because there are more short-term rewards for treating a problem rather than solving underlying issue,” Watts said.

“If we’re not investing in people before it becomes a problem, then it becomes a problem,” he added.

Looking to the future, Watts plans to use his new CEO role to continue raising awareness and pioneering preventative measures.

“Reach has been the single most preventative and influential organisation, with many other organisations operating in this field being a product of Reach,” Watts said.

“We want to continue to be ahead of the curve; to maximise our scalability and our national impact.

“Our only long-term solution is prevention,” Watts said.

Watts’ former stomping grounds, the AFL, is currently a leader in its mental health advocation partnerships.

The league has partnered with Lifeline and Headspace to raise mental health awareness and ensure younger fans and players build the mental fitness they need to manage their wellbeing.

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