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Walk off the War Within challenge
CFA and other emergency service responders, Australian Defence Force personnel and the community will walk around Victoria Park in Ballarat on Saturday 22 April to raise awareness of depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
The walk is a tribute to career firefighter Nathan Shanahan from Mildura and then Ballarat, who struggled with PTSD and died last December. Participants will also walk in memory of CFA and MFB firefighter Damien Burke, who died in February 2016, and all other fallen emergency and other service personnel.
Vist the Walking off the War Within Facebook page.
Mildura Leading Firefighter Adam Young is one of the event organisers and considers himself lucky to have been a colleague and friend to both Nathan and Damien.
“Nathan was one of my mates so his death has hit particularly close to home,” said Adam.
“He was mostly a very quiet person but then he’d come out with these one liners that were either really funny or really insightful. If we had a particularly heavy workload or were at a long-duration incident, he’d say something that just got us through. He was a light globe. He lit up our shift and we really miss that a lot.”
And when Adam remembers Damien, it's his smile that stands out. “We all looked up to him and wanted to be like him. He was such a positive person and the first person to see the good in everyone.”
So far over 200 people have registered to participate in the walk in late April and Adam believes as many as 1000 might eventually participate. On a smaller scale, it replicates the challenge Nathan set himself in 2015, walking from Mildura to Adelaide to actively combat his diagnosed major depressive disorder, anxiety and PTSD.
Nathan’s aim then was also to reduce the stigma of mental illness and have other join him in the walk to combat the loneliness of living with such a psychological burden, even for such a loved family man and colleague as he was.
Just as Nathan carried a heavy pack to signify the weight of a mental health illness, so will participants in Ballarat be encouraged to carry a 20-kilogram pack.
“But they don’t have to,” Adam emphasised. “People are welcome to attend and not walk, or to just walk a short distance with no pack. Others who are up for the challenge can walk the full 20 kilometres with us carrying a 20-kilogram pack.”
A simultaneous walk will be held in the Northern Territory where Nathan had been a firefighter in the Northern Territory Fire and Rescue Service.
“I made contact with their Chief Fire Officer Mark Spain,” continued Adam, “and found they had been talking about the exact same idea and were about to phone us almost on the same day I rang them.”
With high rates of depression and PTSD in the emergency services, leaders of the MFB, Victoria Police, Ambulance Victoria and Australian Army troops out of the Ballarat Barracks are also enthusiastic about their members participating.
Nathan served in the army including on overseas deployment, so the participation of the troops is another fitting tribute.
The walk has two objectives other than to memorialise: to raise awareness of depression and PTSD; and to publicise the many support services available to those suffering with Lifeline, the Black Dog Institute and Survivors of Suicide just three of the walk’s sponsors.
Awareness was also raised when Adam and Dandenong Leading Firefighter Stuart Radley recently joined Jon Faine on ABC774 for The Conversation Hour to discuss depression and PTSD in the fire service.
As Adam tells it, “A cross-shifts team from Dandenong came to us in Mildura in our darkest hours. Despite the distance, they came up out of the blue and said, ‘We want you to know we’re here for you’. For me it was the most touching moment in all my time as a firefighter.”
There have been many emotional moments for Adam and the other two organisers of the walk, Firefighter Josh Martin from Ballarat and Felicity Preston, Nathan’s sister.
“People are sharing their experiences of depression and PTSD and their successes in overcoming,” said Adam. “They’ve told us about their pain and those stories are spurring us on.
“We’re looking at the event as a way of healing for all of us.”
Registrations are open until Monday 17 April.
The walk will take place from 9am Saturday 22 April at Victoria Park in Ballarat with the start and finish line at St Patricks College Eyre Street Ballarat.
It will be a family event with jumping castles, face painting, petting zoos and displays.
Share the burden.
March as one.