Neil Hamilton of Peterborough, Ont., has put his entire life on hold to raise awareness for post-traumatic stress disorder and mental illness in Canada.
“It’s worth sacrificing everything I have,” Hamilton told The Packet in Clarenville on his nationwide walk, that began in St. John’s weeks ago.
His dedication to mental health comes from personal experience. Hamilton was the first person on the scene of a serious road accident. He’s not a first responder, but as a bystander, he attempted to save two individuals in the collision. One of the people survived, but he was unable to save “Samantha,” for whom he named his walk.
After the experience, Hamilton quickly found something was not right with the way he felt.
“I started to change drastically as a person,” he explains. “I became withdrawn and violent and angry and very short tempered.”
He says within a couple of weeks he sought treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder. He received six short counselling sessions with the Canadian Mental Health Association and then went on a two-year wait list for government-sponsored counselling.
“So, at that point I realized waiting around wasn’t going to help me, and it wasn’t going to help anyone else either. So (in December) I decided to embark on this trip.
“I always wanted to cross the country and I realized I could use it as a way to help people, spread awareness and start a conversation.”
The experienced outdoorsman has come well prepared on the journey. He pulls a cart with all of his gear, including high-tech accessories like solar panels, means of doing administrative work and connecting to the internet, and even a coffee press.
Hamilton is camping virtually the entire way, and has carefully planned his route with spreadsheets and detailed notes.
He’s even weighed ahead of time all of what he carries on the cart and backpack – around 250 pounds in total.
“I know exactly what I’m carrying and where I’m going.”
As he approached Clarenville, local mental health advocate Donna Hancock provided much needed help for Hamilton.
After having trouble with the wheels of the cart, a man in Whitbourne gave him a place to stay and fixed the cart.
In Brooklyn, Donna’s husband Tony and Hamilton were able to rig up replacement tires from an old mountain bike to modify the wheels.
Hancock also helped organize the in-community walk in Clarenville on Sunday. The small group went through the community with a police escort, coinciding with the beginning of Mental Health Week.
Hancock is known as the organizer of the local “Walk a Mile in his Shoes” walk to remember RCMP Cpl. Trevor O’Keefe, that also recognizes first responders and raises awareness and funds for mental health.
While Hamilton says he’s pretty physically active, this is the most taxing thing he’s ever experienced on his body.
Along the way, Hamilton is also having local conversations. He wants to shine a light and raise awareness as much as he can. His trip is about learning to understand and care for people affected by mental illness. He says everyone is affected by it.
“We’re great at taking care of other people in this country but, in a way, as a nation, we’ve almost forgotten how to take care of our own. There’s a rot at the core of our country and it’s the mental-health epidemic.”
He says talking is the first step; the second step is participation. He wants to see as many people as possible take part and get engaged.
The third part is educating oneself on facts and what services are out there, like the Canadian Mental Health Association.
“Just over 40 per cent of our national budget goes towards health services; 7.2 per cent goes to mental health services of that 40 per cent. That’s such a minuscule amount of the billions of dollars that is literally going toward saving people’s lives in some cases.”
So, during Mental Health Week, as Canadians shine green lights and wear green ribbons to acknowledge mental health, Hamilton will continue on his cross-country journey — one that may take up to a year and half to complete.
To follow his trek, go to Hamilton’s Instagram: @neilhamilton91.