A journey of 1070 kms begins with a single step

A LONG WALK: Annie Chapman walks the Waikato River path on her way through Hamilton on her one woman protest march from Cape Rienga to Wellington .
A LONG WALK: Annie Chapman walks the Waikato River path on her way through Hamilton on her one woman protest march from Cape Rienga to Wellington .

A Waikato woman who set out on a hikoi to raise awareness of mental health alternatives in 2013 has written a book about her journey and campaign.

Former mental health worker Annie Chapman decided to walk the length of the North Island after challenging herself to encourage others to think about health choices for mental healthcare.

"I heard about the opening of the [Te Araroa walking] trail [on the radio] and I thought I'd love to [walk] it and I want to do it to raise awareness for this issue," Chapman said.

When we last spoke to her, Chapman had made it from Cape Reinga to Hamilton, where she gave a talk to the public about her campaign. With winter fast approaching, she continued on her way, climbing Mt Pirongia and trekking through the "incredible" Pureora forest.

"[It was] really physically challenging, so so cold but also stunning beauty," she said.

Her most exciting adventure came when she took to the water, traversing the Whanganui River by kayak for five days.

"It was the middle of winter and freezing. I nearly capsized several times which would have meant hypothermia, not something you want to get when you're a five days' kayak away from civilisation".

Tired and "triumphant" she arrived on June 10, 2013, six months after she left Cape Reinga.

Presenting her petition of more than 1000 signatures to health select committee chairman Paul Hutchison, she asked for an inquiry into the poor outcomes in service and that a much wider choice of options be available so that people could have treatments other than medication.

"When we handed the petition to Paul Hutchison he quoted the Hippocratic Oath - first do no harm. In essence we were challenging that.

"We have to be doing no harm and the reason I'm doing the hikoi was because I was seeing a lot of harm."

She later gave a presentation to the committee in Wellington and is waiting for an outcome.

During her time as a mental health worker in Porirua, Chapman said she had seen many patients with mental health issues such as schizophrenia and severe depression.

"For everyone with a serious diagnosis it means a life-long dependency on medication and a lifespan a staggering 20 years less than the average person.

"There was one woman who I used to work with that had no teeth and a severely damaged thyroid which had been caused by her medication.

"She was taking 20 pills - a handful of pills - four times a day. Some pills were to control side-effects of the other pills.

She wanted something other than what her life was."

Out in the middle of the bush mid-hikoi, Chapman remembered this woman.

"I was just standing in the bush howling. It began to be about this one woman and then it turned into all people, not just patients but staff too - what it makes people turn into."

Chapman wants greater emphasis on psycho-social interventions - such as therapy - rather than medical ones.

"We need a paradigm shift away from seeing mental illness as a medical disease and towards seeing it as a human response to difficult life challenges.

"People need connection, meaningful work, a healthy diet and social intervention with medication potentially as a support for that, rather than the centre of the mandala.

"Several studies overseas indicate that people do better long term with reduced medication and early psycho-social intervention."

Settling into life in her Coromandel home, Chapman has spent the last few months writing her book - still to be published - which she said is primarily about her journey, with reflections and insights on the path.

While waiting for the outcome from her presentation to the select committee, Chapman, who is also a yoga instructor, has been taking part in a programme called Stepping Out. She gives seminars to a local mental illness group on ways to help people cope with their condition, including yoga and breathing exercises.

She hopes to see alternative mental health centres in the future.

"I'd love to see a sanctuary, where people can feel supported and safe rather than stigmatised and damaged by overmedication."

Holly Dove is a Massey University journalism student.