“The original inspiration was my 13-year-old daughter, Chelsea, who was struggling with mental health challenges for a few years,” Barton says. “But the walk was much bigger than my family, it’s more about trying to shed a light on youth mental health.
“My daughter’s lucky because she’s got a supportive family that can talk about it, but there are so many teenagers out there who don’t have that and are struggling. That’s what motivated me to raise awareness and smash the stigma around mental health.”
While mental health awareness is growing across Australia, and we are gradually tackling the issue with more empathy and care, some stigma remains.
“I’ve seen stigma firsthand, but I’ve also had quite a number of conversations now since the walk, with a number of people who struggle with mental health,” Barton says.
“Males tend to struggle to talk about mental health challenges a bit more and maybe that’s the way they’ve been raised historically – that idea that you’ve got to be tough and put on a brave face, particularly in sport.
“It’s still seen as a sign of weakness for a lot of people in the sporting arena, and there are some great elite sports people who have spoken out, but I still see a real stigma there. We’ve still got a long way to go.”
The absence of this stigma across much of the Taekwondo community was one of the biggest attractions for Barton and his children to the sport. Hamish, a 16-year-old former Australian Taekwondo Pathways athlete, and Chelsea have both been active members of Sydney club, Red Dragon Taekwondo, for many years.
“Both of my kids have been involved in Taekwondo and both have greatly benefited from it. It’s all about self-learning and discovery, being able to work at your own pace, and testing yourself in a safe environment.
“I love Taekwondo and what it gives teenagers. It gives them a community, so, for those who are struggling, there’s a safe place for them.”
Many youths who don’t have such support networks find themselves isolated and unable to reach out for help to work through their mental struggles.
Statistics from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare show that suicide is currently the leading cause of death for Australia’s 15- to 24-year-olds, representing 34% of young people aged 15 to 17 and 35% aged 18 to 24.
Much of the stigma around mental health stems from dated notions that showing vulnerability is a sign of weakness – one of the key narratives Barton is fighting against.
“That stigma around weakness is so wrong because these people are super strong.
“For anyone who's battling some serious mental health challenges, it takes a great amount of will to get about and achieve things in their everyday life. A lot of the people I’m coming across, who are sometimes secretly battling these challenges, are the toughest people I’ve met.
“They might struggle to get out of bed on a certain day, but they’re able to motivate themselves to get about, and still do things, which takes real strength.”
Barton says we should approach mental health challenges in a similar manner to physical injuries or ailments.
“When it comes to mental health, there’s definitely that element of ‘suck it up, everybody has problems, stop complaining’. But if an athlete has a broken leg, the coach doesn’t say that.”
Barton wanted to do something ambitious to break down these stereotypes and get people’s attention, planning a huge trek with an aim of raising $10,000 for Batyr, with every $25 raised going towards workshops for teenagers to learn mental fitness skills and strategies to conquer life’s challenges.
“Batyr specifically go into high schools and deal with teenagers. These workshops are run by young people who have been through mental health challenges themselves. So, for example, you have 21-year-olds coming in and talking to 16-year-olds and passing on the skills they’ve used to conquer similar challenges.”
Once he’d decided on the ambitious walk from Three Sisters to Manly Beach, Barton put in six months of training and preparation, walking 140 kilometres per week to build his fitness and ensure he could complete the journey.
“It was a big challenge. I’m turning 48 soon, so I really had to dedicate myself to get ready for it.”
At midday on March 25, he finally set off, with 13 volunteers joining him for various components of the 128-kilometre journey. One of those volunteers was his son, Hamish.
“Hamish was amazing. He walked the first 12 hours with me non-stop, which was 70 kilometres. He went home and slept for a few hours and his feet were also badly blistered, but he came back the next morning and finished the final three hours with me, which was 20 kilometres.
“I also had a couple of people who volunteered to walk with me through the dead of night from 1am to 5am. So, I was inspired by a few people in the community who put their hands up and helped me walk through some of the toughest parts of the journey.”
Mainstream media coverage on Channel Seven’s nightly news gave Barton an excellent platform to spread the word to a larger audience and many members of the community reached out to him as a result.
“The best thing for me is that I’ve been approached by several people that I didn’t know very well before the walk, who sent me private messages about it and how it’s impacted them.
“There was one young lady in her early 20s who’s suffered mental health challenges since her mid-teens and her father always told her it wasn’t real. He watched the news story on my walk and started googling anxiety and depression. She told me they’re now having a very open conversation about mental health because of it.
“All of that investment, time and pain was worth it just to know I’ve helped her family and her life.”
Barton has also been touched by the community’s generosity, which has brought him close to his $10,000 goal for youth mental health workshops.
“I’m getting 80-90% of the way to my target and I’m hoping with a few more donations we can reach it.”
The link to the fundraiser can be found here, and it remains open for further donations to help Barton hit the $10,000 mark.
The impact of this initiative has also inspired him to do more fundraising and advocacy in this space, to spread the message far and wide.
“I don't really want to stop here. I've seen the impact the simple act of walking can have, so I'm determined to continue to raise awareness for youth mental health and make as much noise as I can.
“I'm not sure what I'm going to do next or how I'm going to do it, but we're losing too many young people to suicide, and too many are self-harming. A lot of it is because they don't have anyone to talk to… It all starts with a conversation, sometimes that’s all people need before things escalate.
“I also hope what I’ve achieved so far in this whole project is a lesson not just for my kids, but also the wider Taekwondo community, that it doesn’t matter what age you are, or what challenges or barriers you face. If you put your mind to something and focus on it, you can achieve things that you never believed were possible.”
Support is available for young people who need assistance. Phone Lifeline 13 11 14; Kids Helpline 1800 551 800.
For more information about Government services providing mental health assistance, you young people across Australia, visit Raising Children emergency resources page.