IT WAS a powerful show of camaraderie and solidarity as more than 1200 people walked together to raise awareness of mental illness in Ballarat on Saturday morning.
Many dressed in uniform, hundreds of emergency service personnel including police, firefighters and paramedics, defence force personnel and members of the public walked alongside each other in memory of returned soldier, firefighter and mental health advocate Nathan Shanahan at the fourth annual Walking Off The War Within event.
Each with their own story to tell, many people were also there in memory of other servicemen, women and loved ones who have taken their lives due to a struggle with post traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, depression and other mental health issues.
One of the people who attended the event at St Patrick's College was Ben Sellars.
Mr Sellars served in Darwin as part of the 1st armoured regiment with Nathan and the two were close friends, serving together for four years.
"It's a great way for me to remember him as a soldier and what he meant to me as a mate," he said.
Mr Sellars said Nathan was one of the most honourable and well-respected soldiers he served with, and everyone was mates with him.
"He knew his job and always did absolutely everything he could to help you," he said. "He was one of the fittest blokes in the army as well. He was just one of those blokes that everybody loved."
Mr Sellars said it was fantastic to see his memory carried on as well as the spotlight on the issue of mental health.
"I think about Nathan every single day. On a day-to-day basis. He still comes back everyday," he said.
Mr Sellars has lost a number of friends to suicide and knows many others who are still in need of mental health support and said that seeing so many people walking to raise awareness and to show those suffering that they are not alone was very impactful.
But he said real action needed to be taken to further support service personnel going forward.
"Something really needs to be done to support service personnel - army, firefighters, paramedics, police and even 000 responders.
"If something isn't done, too many more lives will be lost."
While he left the army 12 years ago and said at that time mental illness was not widely spoken about or mental conditions recognised as an illness, he hopes the red tape has been removed for people now seeking support so that it is more accessible for those who so desperately require it.
The event is a particularly important event in Ballarat, a city that has been rocked by suicide.
Recent tragedies - including high-profile football identity Danny Frawley - and statistics that show Ballarat has one of the highest male suicide rates in Victoria show the urgent need for conversation about the often not-talked-about mental illnesses.
The event comes just weeks after Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced a national commissioner for defence and veteran suicide prevention who will look into curbing the suicide rate and report back yearly.
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According to data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics, Nathan was among 2866 people who took their lives in 2016.
The number of suicides has increased since, with 3046 people dying by suicide in 2018 - that is 8.34 people dying by suicide each day.
Josh Madden travelled from Mildura to attend the event, supported by his service dog Milly - a golden labrador who provides him with emotional support.
A firefighter and an ex serviceman too, attending the event was emotional given that he is struggling mentally at the moment.
Tackling the 20-kilometre challenge while carrying a 20-kilogram bag to symbolise the burden mental illness can have on a sufferer, he walked alongside his mate Stuart Radley - another firefighter who knew Nathan well.
While Mr Madden, who left the army three years ago, is struggling at the moment, he has overcome the often difficult step to seek help and now has strong support from those around him.
"It was certainly tough asking for help initially but now that I've crossed that hurdle, it's easier," he said.
He began working as a firefighter almost immediately after departing the army, which assisted with his assimilation back into society.
"It's quite similar to military life and I have that team environment where everyone's got your back," he said.
Tearing up, he said the past 12 months had been particularly difficult, however, as he was missing the military and some of his mates who have died.
Mr Madden believes the event is a good way to raise awareness of the mental health issues so many people face.
"Events like this are fantastic and there's a lot of very important people here, raising awareness and asking people to speak out about their struggles," he said.
"I think that's really all you can do - to encourage people to reach out and spread the word that it's okay not to be okay and to ask for help."
It was also an emotional day for many others, including many Forest Fire Management Victoria employees.
Dozens attended from all over Victoria.
Chief Fire Officer Chris Hardman said the event was a powerful display of the camaraderie between the men and women of all services, who were united in a common desire to raise awareness of an issue that sees many of their own take their lives.
Articulating that he had always been motivated to attend the event, he said this year was particularly significant given the effect the fire season has had on so many people.
In this fire season alone, FFMV lost three friends and colleagues - David Moresi, Mat Kavanagh and Bill Slade - fighting the fires.
"We lost three fine human beings and to me as the chief, that was particularly difficult, but it pales in comparison to the loss felt by their friends and family.
"Things like this do contribute to PTSD and mental illness [for others]," he said.
While FFMV employs measures to ensure there is a focus on employees' well-being on the job, he said staff worked in dynamic, high risk environments that come with stress and often anxiety and fear, all of which has an impact.
Explaining that he too has suffered from mental illness, though in a mild way, he said he understands what it feels like to feel hopeless but that he took the step to for help.
"People still don't talk enough about mental illness. There shouldn't be a stigma associated with it.
It is just like any other illness - it's an illness and you can be treated for it so let's open up, let's talk, let's share our stories and talk to our mates when we're feeling they're a bit down and let's reach out to people. And get professional help when needed because, like any other illness, sometimes we need a doctor.Chief Fire Officer Chris Hardman
Nathan started the Walking Off The War Within in April 2015, when he walked more than 400-kilometres from Mildura to Adelaide carrying a 20-kilogram pack to raise awareness and funds for PTSD and depression.
But sadly, he lost his battle in December 2016.
The following April, a Walking Off The War Within event was hosted and attended by more than 1000 people in Ballarat, continuing the legacy that he started.
There are now a number of events hosted in cities across Australia each year.
For his dad, John Shanahan, seeing so many attend was "wonderful".
The event had more of a family focus this year, with a disco and children's activities - and Mr Shanahan said this was incredibly important.
"It's just wonderful to see so many people and families come out and say that it is okay to speak about mental health, it is okay to talk about suicide.
"We're all human beings and we've all been touched by it. So, let's get rid of the stigma," he said.
"Events like this are really great for people to show that there are people that care for them."
The family reflected on the third anniversary of Nathan's death in December but Mr Shanahan said it was distressing to see the number of annual suicides increasing.
In order for society to really tackle the issue, he said everybody from community to schools, employers and government needed to work together.
"It's a fact of society now. And it's something that's not going to go away, unless we all work together to stamp this out," he said.
If you or someone you know is in need of crisis support, phone Lifeline on 13 11 14.
Help is also available, but not limited, via the following organisations. The key message is you are not alone.
Beyond Blue 1300 224 636 or beyondblue.org.au
Suicide Callback Service: 1300 659 467
Mensline: 1300 789 978 or mensline.org.au
Survivors of Suicide: 0449 913 535
Relationships Australia: 1800 050 321
Headspace Ballarat (for 12-25s and parent support): 5304 4777
Soldier On: 1300 620 380
Ballarat Community Health: 5338 4500
QLife: 1800 184 527 (Support for gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and intersex people)
Family violence: 1800 RESPECT
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