In April, Lee-Ann and Craig took on the 2017 Black Dog Kokoda Challenge to raise money for the Black Dog Institute and spread positive messages about mental health issues. Focus found out about the personal experiences that inspired them to do this and what it was like to complete the trek.
What is your connection to the Coffs Coast?
Lee-Ann: I was transferred to the Coffs Coast about 1989 while working in the Police. Both of my kids were born here, and I love the sense of community that I feel.
Craig: I moved to the Coffs Coast with my wife and three sons back in 2002 as a result of my transfer to the area as a detective in the NSW Police Force. We have lived on the northern beaches ever since.
What inspired you to create the 2017 Black Dog Kokoda Challenge?
Lee-Ann: I worked with Craig in the Police in Redfern in the ‘80s. When I heard he was going to speak with kids, parents, teachers and other groups out in western NSW about mental health issues, I asked to tag along.
Here was this big motorbike riding man with tattoos way out of his comfort zone, sharing his own experience and giving people information and skills in relation to mental health issues. I was inspired and proud. It was that day that Black Dog Kokoda Challenge was born.
Craig: Scott Campbell from Kokoda Campaign Tours was present during one of my talks in Grafton and recognising the importance of what the Black Dog Institute is doing, he decided to make us the chosen charity for the year for his business.
Lee-Ann and I teamed up with him and launched the 2017 Black Dog Kokoda Challenge. Our goals are twofold. The first is to raise $50,000 for the Black Dog Institute over the full trekking year (ending in December). The second is to use our fundraiser as a platform from which to raise awareness and spread positive messages about mental health issues.
What is the Black Dog Institute, and how will the money raised from this year’s treks help them?
Craig: Established in 2002, the Black Dog Institute has become a world leader in the diagnoses, treatment and prevention of mood disorders, including Depression and Bi-Polar disorder.
The Institute is also heavily engaged in community education. All volunteers have a lived experience of mental illness and share their stories in an effort to break down the barriers of stigma that prevent so many people from seeking help.
All of Black Dog’s educational development and delivery is funded entirely from public donations. All trekkers involved in the campaign are fully self-funded, so 100% of the donations go to the Black Dog Institute to help with this.
Can you tell us a bit about your experience of mental health issues?
Lee-Ann: I was discharged from the Police Force with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), anxiety and depression back in the days when there weren’t even that many women in the Police Force and certainly no one going on stress leave. There was so much stigma and fear surrounding it, which I think caused me to try and hide it. Having been in denial for so long has resulted in a slow road to wellness, but I am on that road and kickin’ it.
Craig: As a detective in the Police Force, I was required to attend and investigate all un-natural deaths, including suicides. A lack of education about mental illness led to my ignorant belief that suicide was the result of victims lacking the strength and courage to face their personal problems.
During my own battle with depression and PTSD, my understanding of mental illness and suicide has dramatically changed. Insight is a powerful thing, and I now understand that the loss of those lives had nothing to do with strength, courage or weakness. They simply fell victim to an illness.
What was the Kokoda Trail like?
Lee-Ann: Tough, wonderful, emotional, risky and did I mention tough!
Craig: It is definitely a true test of physical and mental endurance. With 15 kg packs strapped to our backs, we trekked
120 km from a position north of Kokoda, over the Owen Stanley Ranges to Port Moresby. Sometimes we walked through swamps, in the rain and nearly always we were walking in mud … And it was worth it! The effort involved served to heighten our sense of appreciation for what we saw and experienced, including tribal ceremonies, war history and artefacts, some of the warmest people on the planet and scenery so beautiful and incredible that words could never describe it.
How did you feel once you completed the trek?
Lee-Ann: Elated, emotional, buggered and a bit sad that it had come to an end. We were off the grid for nine days in the jungle, walking in the footsteps of our ancestors … Who wouldn’t want a piece of that? I was grateful too, for the support of our local porters, the amazing Kokoda Campaign team and the people I now consider friends that undertook this journey with me.
Craig: When all seventeen of us walked together through the arches at the very end, the sense of achievement and the enormity of what we had accomplished together was so profound, that holding back tears soon became a fruitless exercise. I cannot understate how much facing and overcoming challenges builds self-esteem and self-worth in all facets of our lives. This trek, for me, is a good example of that.
How much money have you raised so far?
Craig: So far we have raised over $10,000.
Scott Campbell and Stuart Jonklass from our Trekking partner Kokoda Campaign Tours are generously donating one dollar for every kilometre walked by each trekker during all three treks for 2017. This trek, seventeen of us walked 120 km, and there are two more treks planned this year.
We are also lucky to have the enormous support of a new local business, Sunburst Real Estate, located in Moonee. They have pledged to donate 25% of all their commissions for residential property sales for 2017. One of the principals, Darcy Kean, also joined us on the first trek.
Another local business sponsor is Geoff King Motors. Geoff, as always, is keen to support worthwhile local causes.
Do you have any advice for people living with mental health issues?
Lee-Ann: Never ever give up. You are not alone. Go to your GP and request a referral to speak with a psychologist/counsellor/psychiatrist. Don’t be put off if the person you see isn’t a fit for you. Keep looking.
Craig: My biggest mistake was failing to seek help early. Early intervention leads to improved recovery time and outcomes. For anyone concerned about their mental health, I strongly recommend making an appointment with your GP as early as possible. Putting your hand up for help is not a sign of weakness; it is actually a sign of strength and courage.
Where can people find out more?
The Black Dog Institute has a fantastic website with loads of information on mental illnesses. If you are concerned for yourself or someone you care about, there are self-test links, which are really useful, in addition to lots of advice on what to do. www.blackdoginstitute.org.au
For more on the Black Dog 2017 Kokoda Trek Challenge, go to: http://kokoda2017.gofundraise.com.au/
Thanks Lee-Ann and Craig.