‘It’s our purpose’: How two young men from the NT combat mental health issues in their community

When Jahdai Vigona and Danté Rodrigues were heading down the wrong path after high school, they had two options: keep going or make a change.

They chose the latter, and ever since they have been working tirelessly to improve the mental and physical health of Indigenous men in their community.

The two cousins, who are are both proud Tiwi Islands men, say that with the help of mentors, family members and positive role models, they were able to turn things around for themselves, and hope to do the same for others.

“Jahdai and I grew up around a lot of things like domestic violence, drug and alcohol abuse and crime and for a while we were even going off on our own wrong path,” Danté says.

“I’m only 22 and I’ve lost more friends and family than I can count,” Jahdai adds.

“I’ve attended more funerals than weddings in my lifetime. That’s just the harsh reality for someone like me coming from the NT.”

A better self, 1 per cent at a time

Jahdai and Danté decided to take matters into their own hands — or boxing gloves.

“How can you expect someone to be a good person, if you don’t teach them how to be,” Danté says.

“We are lucky that we had a lot of positive role models to help us, but for a lot of people in the Northern Territory, Indigenous or not, they just don’t have that support.” 

With their One Percent program, they try to help young Indigenous men in the Northern Territory become better versions of themselves day by day, 1 per cent at a time.

Mindfulness is a integral part of Jahdai and Danté’s program.(Supplied)

The duo run weekly sessions in Darwin, inviting anyone who’s keen for a work-out and a proper feed to join.

A session usually starts around 10 in the morning at an oval in Darwin. Participants start with a jog around the field.

What follows is Danté leading the physical component of the session, which consists of kickboxing, pad work and other exercises.

The second half of the session moves into the more spiritual side.

“We do team building and I facilitate theatre work as a way of strengthening communications and bonds within the group,” Jahdai says.

Theatre work generally takes the form of games that strengthen group bonds, like one where the participants have to count to 21 by yelling a number without interrupting each other.

If they manage to get to 21 uninterrupted, Jahdai asks the group who didn’t yell out a number. Those quieter members are encouraged to let their voices be heard in the next round.

“Sometimes there are stronger voices and sometimes quieter ones, but we try to teach people that the stronger voices aren’t any more or less important than the quiet ones,” he says. 

Group picture of 20-odd people on a field, behind them are soccer goals.

Participants start off the day with a jog around the field.(Supplied)

The program also incorporates a lot of practical life skills.

“I’ve had to figure a lot of things out for myself, like how to get a loan for a car, how to do my taxes, how to write a proper job application, how to communicate, how to write effectively,” Jahdai says.

“All these foundational skills you think you’d learn in 12 years of schooling.”

Danté acknowledges that a lot of those skills are usually taught by parents.

“But a lot of kids, Indigenous or not, don’t have that. We want to make those services more available to people like us.” 

Jahdai and Danté know from their own experience what it’s like to struggle with their mental health.

One of the things that helped them through it is sports.

Two young men are pictured sitting down on a flight of stairs.

Jahdai and Danté have used their own personal experiences and backgrounds to develop the program.(ABC News: Leah White)

Discipline through kickboxing

Danté, who is also a professional fighter and has competed in the WAKO Kickboxing World Championships, explains how his sport got him off the wrong path.

“There was drug and alcohol abuse, not attending school, running amok and just being a nuisance. You know, normal stuff,” he says. 

“But when I started focusing full time on sport, that’s when I noticed my life was getting better in almost every aspect.

“A really big lesson that kicked into me was to surround myself with positive people, always.”

Two men are pictured, the one of the left is hitting at the boxing pads that the one on the right is holding.

Danté says kickboxing helped him get his life under control.(Supplied)

Kickboxing teaches important values like discipline and self-worth, he says.

“That sport builds so much resilience and so much accountability, compared to any other sport,” he says.

“It teaches young men that when you get knocked down, you have to get back up.”

More than just boxing

“[The program] covers all aspects of needs for a young male. It’s spiritual through meditation and mindfulness, there’s social connection and a mental health side where we talk and listen to each other,” Jahdai says.

Jahdai, who has a mental health education background, has worked a lot with Indigenous youth in correctional settings and remote communities.

He uses those experiences at the One Percent Program. Each session focuses on a different value: from discipline to mindfulness and social connections.

A row of men is pictured boxing, some hold pads as others are wearing gloves, hitting at the pads.

“[The program] covers all aspects of needs for a young male,” Jahdai says. (Supplied)

Fourteen-year-old Numaka Jarlson says the program has taught him about discipline.

“It’s been something that gets me out of bed on the weekends instead of just sitting on my phone all day,” he says.

“[The program] gives me a really good model of a good man … It gives me a standard that I look up to.”

“I really enjoy just settling down and just talking about feelings and life because I think it’s really meaningful and it’s really important. 

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‘It’s our purpose’

The Australian Bureau of Statistics reports that in 2022 the rate of suicide among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people was more than twice that of the broader population, with over three-quarters of those who died by suicide being male. 

Earlier this year a Darwin inquest was told that NT’s child and youth suicide rate was more than three times the national average.

Two men are pictured, both are wearing sunnies are wearing dark shirts. They are standing on a field with soccer goals.

Jahdai and Danté say that there is a need for a program like theirs.(Supplied)

Jahdai and Danté say they get regular reminders of why they started the program.

“We’ve had participants share with us that three days before coming to a session they felt suicidal. The only thing that got them out of the house was participating in our program,” Jahdai says.

“We didn’t think a program like this would have such an impact and to hear stuff like that from our participants, shows that there’s a need for it.

“The program really is just who we are, our characters, our people’s upbringing, it’s what we want to do. It’s our purpose,” Jahdai concludes. 

Danté agrees: “It’s a reflection of who we are.” 

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