Hugh graduated from Carey in 1998 as School Captain, already displaying leadership skills and a deep care for those around him. A lover of sport, in Year 12, Hugh represented Carey in both the First XI Cricket Team and the First XVIII Football Team.
In Hugh’s School Captain report for the 1998 Carey Chronicle, he capped off his reflection of the year with the following advice for his peers:
‘In leaving Carey I ask you to challenge the limits. Be ambitious in your goal-setting. When you leave, ponder what you will do to the world, not what the world will do to you. We are all at a high point in our lives at the moment. Someone quite narrow minded once said that what goes up must come down. I challenge you to defy that. The sky's the limit. Keep rising up with courage and faith.’
Along with showcasing his trademark tongue-in-cheek sense of humour, Hugh’s words to his cohort were a hint to what he would go on to ‘do to the world’ – teach people to embrace the highs and the lows, but always strive to be the best version of himself.
However, what Hugh’s peers may not have gleaned from their School Captain’s inspiring messages and contagious smile, is that his family was enduring a challenge throughout their years at Carey that would shape his path of the rest of his life.
For many years, Hugh’s sister struggled with a debilitating mental health condition and eating disorder, which Hugh, as a teenager, had little understanding of. What he could see clearly, though, was the way it affected his whole family.
‘I have a very strong memory of realising that my family wasn’t a happy family,’ Hugh told Torch in 2020. ‘I became fascinated with the question of what it is that makes people happy, because I had a very strong sense to do something to help my family to feel happy again.’
Hugh explains that it wasn’t until a trip to India 10 years later that he found an answer. After completing his Bachelor of Education at RMIT, Hugh travelled to a small village in the Himalayas to work as a volunteer teacher in an underprivileged school. The people in the village had no access to running water or electricity, they didn’t have beds to sleep in and many families couldn’t afford to provide lunch for their children every day.
And yet, the people of this village were the happiest people he’d ever met. After noticing this, and feeling as though he may have finally found his answer, Hugh realised that there were three practices people in the community had incorporated into every day: gratitude, empathy and mindfulness (GEM).
Upon returning to Australia and spending time researching these three principles, Hugh discovered that the evidence was there all along. By embracing the GEM principles and incorporating them into our everyday lives, we can drastically improve our own sense of wellbeing, fulfilment and happiness.
He also came to realise how prevalent mental illness is in Australia. It is estimated that one in five adults will experience mental ill-health each year, one in four adolescents and one in seven primary school-aged children have a mental illness, and 65% of adolescents do not seek help for mental illness.
With everything Hugh had learnt, it became his mission to improve these statistics and equip young people with the tools to strategies to support their mental health. These discoveries were the foundation of the Resilience Project, an organisation dedicated to improving the mental health outcomes of Australians. After his first talks at schools in 2010, Hugh approached Carey and came in to present to students every year for the next eight years.
Hugh says that about two years in, he was struggling to keep the Resilience Project going without needing to go back to teaching full-time, and the Old Carey Grammarians Association donated $5000 to keep Hugh’s vision alive.
‘I was a teacher at the time and naturally focussed on adolescent mental health, but the project quickly became relevant to people of all ages and walks of life,’ Hugh says. ‘We now present to all sorts of organisations, still a lot of schools but also professional sports clubs and corporations and communities.’
The Resilience Project now employs 36 people, including six Carey alumni, and has delivered his message to upwards of one million Australians, through over 1000 schools and 500 workplaces and local and elite sporting organisations.
As well as managing the growing impact of the Resilience Project, Hugh has written two books, The Resilience Project: Finding Happiness through Gratitude, Empathy and Mindfulness (2019) and Let Go: It's time for us to let go of shame, expectation and our addiction to social media (2021). He is the co-host of The Imperfects, a popular podcast discussing mental health, vulnerability and imperfection, along with his brother Josh and his good friend and comedian Ryan Shelton. They have interviewed many notable guests, including Esther Perel, Johann Hari, Tim Minchin, Taryn Brumfitt and Gary Barlow, among several others.
In 2021, Hugh became an ambassador for Eating Disorders Families Australia (EDFA), an organisation dedicated to providing support to the families of those experiencing eating disorders. As a cause close to his heart, Hugh hopes to encourage support for EDFA and raise awareness of their services for families with loved ones with an eating disorder.
Hugh has dedicated his life to improving mental health outcomes for all Australians, and it has been a joy for us at Carey to follow his career and see his message spread. His selfless dedication his family, his community and the Australian people makes Hugh van Cuylenburg a very worthy recipient of the Carey Medal for 2023.
Kelly Southworth, Content Developer