Luke's story: from crash survivor to community activist

Luke almost lost his life in a motorbike accident. While still dealing with the injury to his brain, the 38-year-old has become increasingly active as a community mental health advocate.

Luke Anderson

Community activist Luke Anderson

Luke was born in Melbourne but moved to Port Macquarie NSW at age 3 as his parents didn’t want to raise him in the city. His dad, Joseph's, family is from Malta and his mum, Julie's, mother is from Scotland. He found out much later that his Mum’s dad was a Gunakurnai man from Gippsland.

Luke has lived in 'Port' most of life apart from short stints elsewhere and some travel overseas. He describes a generally happy childhood even though his parents separated when he was about ten. Port a small country town back and he was a 'boy's boy'—skating, surfing and riding motorbikes with his mates.

Luke left school in year 10 to join the Navy. He wasn’t there for long because during this time, his mum took her life and Luke came home for the funeral. He was 19. The loss of his mother took him to dark places, and since then he has done his own thing—"running his own race".  

Work in the navy

In his mid-20s Luke studied marine engineering in Fremantle which gave him a certificate to work as an Integrated Rating in the merchant navy. He worked in the oil and gas industry, mainly on offshore rigs for the next 8 years. He loved this diversity of this work—navigation, rust prevention and painting, emergency response, helping to land helicopters. Luke finished a contract on the rigs late in 2014 and went snowboarding in Canada with his best mate.

"It was hot and rough work, but I loved it and it was well paid. It was five weeks on at more than 80 hours a week, and then five weeks off. Really, it's a young man’s game. It’s hard to settle down and have a relationship", Luke.  

The motorbike accident

Soon after returning home from Canada Luke went for a motorbike ride in the mountains west of Port Macquarie with some friends. He was cruising at the back of the pack on a mountain road with the mountain on one side and a cliff on the other when he had a head-on collision. It was with an off-duty nurse.

He almost lost his life but apart from some bad cuts to his leg there was hardly any visible damage. The damage was to his brain. He got air-lifted to hospital and spent six days in a coma. It was a couple of weeks before he could finally talk. In rehab he re-learnt how to do basic things again like cook, clean and navigate around a shopping centre.

"I was like Dory in Finding Nemo—my short-term memory was really shot. Also, the traumatic brain injury meant I was very sensitive to loud noise or any stimulus and I’d get very anxious" Luke

Returning to work

A week after he got home, he was offered a construction job he applied for before the accident—which he had forgotten about. He was in denial about his brain injury and accepted the job.

Luke worked for 8 months and during this time he struggled; he didn't take his medication, had ulcers in his mouth and couldn't sleep properly. He masked the injury with humour.

"I thought I was OK but inside my head it was chaos. I was suicidal. Then one day I thought about my little brother, my friends, my family and went straight to my boss and said I needed to go home".

A focus on health

Back in Port in 2016, Luke started to meditate, do yoga, focus on his health and actually listen to what the doctors said. He tried to manage his anxiety through breathing exercises, reading a lot on science and spirituality and didn't drink any alcohol for two years.

"I was asking questions about life. I don't see myself as a Christian anymore. I think I believe in the universe. If you’re a good person then that goodness comes back to you" - Luke.  

Supporting the Community

Since 2017 Luke has been increasingly involved in community work. He volunteered to be a facilitator in government student-safety programs.

"I was someone with lived experience, someone who gets up and tells his own story. I put together a PowerPoint and spoke at big auditoriums in Port and Kempsey to a lot of kids about road safety, depression, suicide. I was really hit by how healing it was for me. I was doing something useful again"—Luke.

A year later Lifeline asked Luke to be their regional youth ambassador. "Because of Mum, that was something close to my heart. And that work has led this year to bigger things."

In January Luke was named Citizen of the Year at the Port Macquarie-Hastings Australia Day ceremony for his work in the community to support people who have mental health issues.

Soon after he was headhunted by an Indigenous organisation as a 'future coach', a mentor to Indigenous kids coming out of foster care. The casual role is paid work, which means Luke is no longer on the disability pension and has become self-sustaining again, which he is pleased about.

Luke has also started a non-profit with some friends called 'Self Seen' to change the way we look at mental health.

"I’ve taken ownership of my condition. I’m not fighting it, and that really helps."

"It's taken a long time after the accident to get back to feeling myself. I’m exponentially better but I still have to be careful of my capacity and not overextend myself. Whenever I do too many things the brain injury takes me back a few pegs. I have to pre-think things. I’ve got lots of little strategies to deal with the unexpected".