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On the power of walking, as a disruptive intervention for mental health

A group comprised of strangers, colleagues and friends will come together on August 1 in inner Melbourne to participate in a public walk on the Country of the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin Nation.

The aims of the exercise – which we call a #CroakeyGO, or an act of participatory walking journalism – include creating a collective platform for constructive conversations about how to improve the lives of people with mental illnesses and related concerns.

Walking is often promoted because of its well-known benefits for physical and mental health, as well as the opportunities it brings for connecting with the wider world around us.

It is pertinent to be walking when talking about mental health because we know that the physical health and wellbeing of people with mental illness has long been neglected.

We also know that action on the wider social determinants of mental health and wellbeing is woefully under-addressed, whether we are talking about poverty and income stress (Mental Health Australia and other health groups plan to make  submissions to the Senate inquiry into Newstart and related payments), insecure housing, structural violence or isolation and social exclusion.

Inquiry after inquiry has documented failures with access to safe and quality health services. As we walk many of us will be thinking of this week’s coronial findings into the preventable death from septicaemia of a pregnant young Wiradjuri woman – Naomi Williams – which remind us that health care systems too often are the cause of trauma and harm rather than safe places, especially for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

And we walk at a time when paying attention to the state of the world – whether it is unprecedented fires across the Arctic regions, reindeer starving to death in the Arctic, or red-alert extreme heat in Europe – brings daily assaults on our mental health and wellbeing.

Walking for disruption

We will walk with purpose and consciousness. A #CroakeyGO is also an opportunity to walk as a disruptive activity.

We are disrupting the usual ways of doing business, whether as journalists, or as health and social services, including housing and justice systems.

Can the deceptively simple act of walking together create space for new types of conversations and connections, for disrupting world views and understanding?

Walking journalism democratises the process of collecting, recording and communicating health information.

It provides a platform for communities of people who share a common goal or concern (often from very different perspectives) to walk and talk with journalists, and to collaboratively produce solutions-focused stories, discussions and multi-media content.

As Dr Ruth Armstrong says:

What emerges is not always neat or comfortable, but it’s a reminder that we are all in this together. Our feet tread the same ground, we breathe the same air.

Each time I attend a #CroakeyGo and move backwards and forwards around the group, dropping in on diverse conversations, and trying to produce a faithful record of the day, I’m struck by the realisation that every participant has something to offer.

We just need to be open to discovery, adventure and serendipity.”

Respecting Country

A #CroakeyGO creates space and time for participants to reflect upon the Country where we walk, for developing a grounded appreciation for the truth of many thousands of generations, that this always was, always will be Aboriginal land.

This #CroakeyGO starts at the site of the Victorian Aboriginal Health Service (VAHS) almost 46 years after it officially opened on the 18th of August 1973.

A history of VAHS tells of the importance of the area where we walk for the Aboriginal community in Melbourne.

It also tells that VAHS was established to overcome the racism of Australia’s mainstream healthcare system, which had long denied Aboriginal people access, and to improve Aboriginal wellbeing:

Yet VAHS was never just a health service.

It was also a political organisation: formed by Aboriginal people in an attempt to regain control over their lives after almost two centuries of oppression and disempowerment.”

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have a long history of leading the way in health advocacy and service development, including through using walking as a form of resistance and collective action.

As Dr Megan Williams observes:

We have had well-publicised walks by Aboriginal people to raise awareness particularly of the need for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people’s knowledges and models of health care to be better used. We wait for the time when mainstream Australia realise the value of these for themselves.

The Uluru Statement from the Heart encourages us to both keep active in our Indigenous ways, and to be patient, continuing on the journey together.

Indigenous people walk in two worlds but one path is clear – to move forward with the process of agreement making, out of love and respect for our ancestors, whose knowledges we must pass on to younger generations, and all Australians.”

Williams says that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people’s desire for a culturally-rich Australia was highlighted this week at the inaugural UTS Great Debate on ‘Love is all we need’ by the Centre for Advancement of Indigenous Knowledges – check #utscaikdebate on Twitter.

“The debate traversed western philosophies and writers on love, the principles and choices of love, and how oppression and pain resonate through generations when love is withheld, withdrawn or violated – for people and the planet,” she says.

Serendipitous connections

As we walk, we can reflect upon the importance of collective action, of addressing the political determinants of health and recognising that improving mental health of the community is not simply about investing more into mental health services.

We know from past #CroakeyGO events that serendipity seems to weave its magic as we walk, bringing us in contact with people connected to our topics of the day without them knowing they were happening.

During a #CroakeyGo in Albury last year, Wiradjuri artist Ruth Dacy-Davys credited her ancestors for leading her to the Murray River so she could speak about her artwork that was featured along the riverwalk, and had been the subject of much discussion during the walk.

At the end of the #VicVotes #CroakeyGO last November, walkers had a chance meeting with the grandson of the legendary Aboriginal activist William Cooper – Alfred (Uncle Boydie) Turner, together with his friend and colleague Abe Schwartz (read more here).

And finally, we would like to acknowledge and congratulate the North Western Melbourne PHN for supporting an event that seeks to enable disruptive and challenging conversations.

We also acknowledge and thank cohealth for supporting the #VicVotes #CroakeyGo held just before last year’s Victorian election, which also raised many important mental health issues.

To date we have published more than 40 articles from #CroakeyGO events around metropolitan and regional Australia, from Carnarvon to Melbourne and north Queensland.

If you can’t join in person, please follow our walk on Twitter at #NavigatingHealth.

• This article is from members of the Croakey News team who will be attending the #NavigatingHealth event – Melissa Sweet, Marie McInerney, Paula O’Connell, Amy Coopes and Rebecca Thorpe – as well as by those who will participate virtually: Dr Megan Williams, and Dr Ruth Armstrong.


Tweets from a preparatory walk

Read more in the NWMPHN magazine (see p. 10).

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Croakey Conference News Service 2013 – 2019
2013 conferences
Australian Centre for Health Services Innovation Forum 2013
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Closing the Credibility Gap 2013
CRANAplus Conference 2013
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Health Workforce Australia 2013
International Health Literacy Network Conference 2013
NACCHO Summit 2013
National Rural Health Conference 2013
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2014 conferences
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AIDA Conference 2014
Congress Lowitja 2014
CRANAplus conference 2014