Former NRL player turned boxing champion Joe Williams has spoken of his battle with mental illness, during a conference in Rotorua.

The first day of the World Indigenous Suicide Prevention Conference and Youth Summit today saw a range of keynote speakers take the stage, including Sir Mason Durie, New Zealand comedian and mental health advocate Mike King and Williams.

Organisers of the inaugural conference expected about 200 people to attend but it attracted more than twice that, with Australian representatives indicating they would like to host it next year.

Williams, a Wiradjuri Aboriginal who played for South Sydney, Penrith and Canterbury in the NRL before switching to boxing in 2009, has battled with mental illness, attempting suicide in 2012. Now he spends his time working to inspire youth and individuals through motivational speaking and his charity, The Enemy Within.

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He told the Rotorua Daily Post something greater than him kept him on earth.

"I did everything in my power not to be here anymore so when I woke up and the doctor told me I was lucky I knew I had been given a second chance.

"From then on, every single day I open my eyes I want to make a positive impact on somebody's life - helping people helps me."

Speaking to an audience of about 150 young people, Williams said it was his career in boxing that taught him how to fight life.

"I've come up against some pretty fierce guys on the field and even fiercer guys in the ring but nothing has compared to what I come up against inside my own head.

"If you give up in the boxing ring you get hurt. If you give up on mental illness, you die. Some days it will be a battle but now I know it will never beat me."

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He said it was important for indigenous youth to remember that while friends came and went, their culture and ancestors didn't.

"The voices in my head still tell me I'm not good enough but the one thing that has always had my back is my ancestors and my culture. It's important to find your culture and live it."

The conference was organised by Te Runanga o Ngati Pikiao Trust and is believed to be the first of its kind in the world, attracting indigenous cultures from around the globe.

Project leader Michael Naera said he was amazed at the response on the first day.

"We were aiming for 200 people and on our first day we had 480 registered."

Where to get help: Youth services: 06 3555 906
- Youthline: 0800 376 633
- Kidsline: 0800 543 754 (4pm to 6pm weekdays)
- Whatsup: 0800 942 8787 (noon to midnight)
- Depression helpline: 0800 111 757 (24-hour service)
- Rainbow Youth: 09 376 4155
- If it is an emergency and you feel like you or someone else is at risk, call 111