Sarah Eagle’s life changed forever when her brother Ben went missing in Victoria in 2001 while suffering from mental illness. She shares her passion for change to the mental health system, so that Ben’s life still has meaning today.
What prompted your move to Armidale?
I moved to Armidale in 2008 to complete my Bachelor of Psychology with Honours. I graduated in April and am now a PhD candidate researching my passion – mental health.
Why are you passionate about psychology and mental health issues?
My passion evolved through my family’s personal experience with mental health issues. My brother Ben suffered from Schizophrenia, so I know firsthand the challenges that arise for family and carers. In 2001 during Ben’s worst psychotic episode in ten years, he was discharged from psychiatric care. Days later, he went missing in a remote region of Victoria. My family and I were involved in the ensuing search, which was horrific. His body was never found; a death certificate was issued.
Back then, my knowledge about mental illness was very limited; I had no idea how to help Ben, or how to get support for my family. Three months after Ben died, I realised that I could remain angry at the system for being underfunded, or I could try to make a difference for Australians feeling the impact of mental illness.
We hear you like walking …
I’m not really sure it’s walking that I like, or whether it is simply a vehicle (excuse the pun!) for my determination and frustration towards the mental health system. Although walking for several months is certainly cathartic and peaceful, it also involves talking publicly about my traumatic personal experience.
How did your walks begin?
I started because Ben and I were planning to walk the 600 km Bibbulmun Track in Western Australia not long before he died. We both agreed if we were going on a walking holiday, we would do it for more than just ourselves. We planned to ask for sponsorship and had chosen a kids charity to raise a few hundred dollars for support.
When I made the decision to try and make a difference after Ben’s death, I chose to stick to our original plan to walk the Bibbulmun Track. Ten months after Ben died, I undertook my first walk, not with him, but for him and for all those who feel the impact of mental illness.
I walked with Ben’s best mate Ewin Wood, and along the way we gave talks and interviews to schools, community groups and media. Ten thousand dollars was raised for SANE Australia, a national charity helping people affected by mental illness.
Tell us about your second walk …
My second walk was 1,750 km across France and Spain in 2005. I walked this one alone, for Ben and the cause. Before leaving Australia, I gave talks to large groups, raising more funds for SANE Australia. It was an incredible walk.
Some days my boots felt like torture chambers and I couldn’t wait to take them off, only to feel the whopping pain of cramps every 20 minutes or so throughout the night. In the darkness of each morning, however, I could feel the walking track enticing me back – and couldn’t wait to be on the road again.
At the end of this walk I felt frustrated that the message behind the walk hadn’t reached more people. I decided to resign from my job and enrol at university, to increase my credibility and to make my voice louder.
What is the concept behind Walking Feat?
The name Walking Feat started as the title of an e-newsletter that I sent out to keep mates and family updated during my second walk. I was soon contacted by people from all over the world wanting to receive these updates.
The name refers to the walks, but also symbolises the community walking collectively towards a better quality of life for all people affected by mental illness.
Walking Feat aims to raise awareness of mental health issues on several levels. The first level is me; as an average person I speak openly about my personal experiences, hoping to encourage others to do the same. Educating people on mental illness, the impact of stigma and mental health early intervention strategies is another facet of this role.
The second level is mental health service providers. While the walks raise funds for SANE Australia, I raise awareness of all services, with each one playing a crucial role. The third level is involving businesses, for workplace mental health awareness and sponsorship. Research into mental health issues is the fourth level, motivating me to commence a PhD.
The purpose of recruiting support across all these levels is that by working together we can make a difference and clearly communicate to the Australian Government the need for additional funding for our mental health system.
What are the plans now for Walking Feat?
In April 2012 I will be walking 2,400 km across Japan. The walk was originally planned for this August, but was postponed after the recent disasters. The extended timeline will allow me to forge a stronger connection with Japanese mental health services in preparation for the mental health issues which will surface around that time.
What is the highlight for you with Walking Feat?
The biggest achievement will be the launch of Walking Feat Japan, taking place on the 16 July this year. I phoned Professor Patrick McGorry, Australian of the Year 2010 (Australia’s leading expert in early intervention for mental health), to ask for his support.
Patrick is really behind the Walking Feat project and will be a guest speaker at the launch. It’s an absolute privilege to have Patrick in Armidale – and quite an emotional experience, given the personal reasons behind it.
I’m over the moon with the community support for the launch and specifically with the donations of time and finances to cover the costs of the launch, from the New England Division of General Practice and the schools of Rural Medicine, Health, and Behavioural, Cognitive and Social Science at UNE.