Back to nature: the healing power of recovery camp

David Pritchard, Susan Sumskis, Christine and Dr Lorna Moxham. Picture: SYLVIA LIBER

David Pritchard, Susan Sumskis, Christine and Dr Lorna Moxham. Picture: SYLVIA LIBER

A unique camp is offering challenges and support to people living with a mental illness, writes CYDONEE MARDON.

People living with a mental illness have been "roughing it" with health professionals and nursing students to get to the heart of the problems they face and support they need.

Sixteen nursing students, three psychology students, an exercise physiologist, four nursing academics and a mental health nurse all sat around a campfire with 27 people dealing with mental health issues.

There was no judgment at the YMCA Camp Yarramundi. Just a group of people learning from each other and sharing their stories, fears and lots of laughter.

"Completely absent from the camp was any focus on symptoms or illnesses as restrictions," said Dr Lorna Moxham, professor of mental health nursing at the University of Wollongong.

"Instead, an atmosphere of facilitation, participation and communication pervaded the camp."

The campers were a mix of male and females ranging in age from 21 to 71, and weighing from 51 to 185 kilograms.

"All of the events presented a different challenge, either over mind or body or both.''

"All of the events presented a different challenge, either over mind or body or both.''

"Everybody had an active, integral and valued role within the camp, regardless of gender, age or size," said Dr Moxham, leader of the Living Well Longer team at the University's Global Challenges program.

And their health conditions - post-traumatic stress disorder, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, anxiety, depression, personality disorders, addictions and eating disorders - didn't slow them.

"We had people with sleep apnoea, diabetes, irritable bowel, asthma, chronic fatigue, hypothyroid, back pain, poor mobility, hypertension, arthritis, a hip replacement, skin cancer, a cervical laminectomy and more," Dr Moxham said.

"Everyone who attended [had] the opportunity to challenge themselves in a range of physically and mentally testing activities such as high ropes, rock climbing, the flying fox, hours of high-energy bush dancing and also the quiet, calming and centring practice of tai chi," Dr Moxham said.

Campers get a rare opportunity to try ‘‘daredevil’’ activities.

Campers get a rare opportunity to try ‘‘daredevil’’ activities.

"They learned to appreciate each other's personal journeys, to focus on each other's strengths and to find solutions to shared challenges."

The camp has won the national The Partnerships in Wellbeing Award, sponsored by the Australian College of Mental Health Nurses and Lilly.

It is not cheap to run, but its legacy is lasting.

This year Dr Moxham's team has half the budget of last year.

"Getting money for mental illness isn't all that easy unfortunately," she said.

"This year we can take 20 bachelor of nursing students but we have 45 who expressed an interest.

"I'd like this to be sustainable every year as an integrated approach to multi-disciplinary health education.

"If anyone would care to sponsor the camp that would be fantastic. To give you an idea, it costs about $1800 just for the bus to get us there and back. UOW makes no profit - it's just great to be able to make a difference."

Christine describes the camp as an "experience of a lifetime".

Christine describes the camp as an "experience of a lifetime".

For Christine, a 63-year-old mother of two, the camp was "like nothing I could have imagined".

"I had never experienced a camp when at school and certainly never the daredevil experience presented to me at the camp," she said.

"Although I use the word 'daredevil', at no time did I feel intimidated. And with the experienced instructors I felt in safe hands at all times."

"When a person has a mental illness they tend to be a loner or have only a few friends or at least see them one at a time."

Christine, who has battled mental health issues for much of her adult life, said she found everyone supportive. She needed that when it came to the dreaded flying fox.

"It's an experience I believe I would never have had if I had not been in the group atmosphere with such good and trustworthy instructors," she said.

"I ummed and aahed at going on the giant swing. But after seeing a few others participating, I felt I could take the plunge and have a go. It was the most invigorating thing I have ever experienced. The uncontrollable screams were better than a great belly laugh."

Christine said it was wonderful to be treated as a person and not be referred to as a "consumer".

"My pulse and blood pressure were taken at different stages, but this made me feel important and I knew I was helping the nurses in their clinical experience. I never at any stage felt like I was a guinea pig, nor did I have a feeling that there was any stigma," she said.

"I thought it was an experience of a lifetime. All of the events presented a different challenge, either over mind or body or both.

"I was the type of person who would have her toes in the water for 10 minutes before deciding not to jump into the pool.

"The Recovery Camp has brought me to realise it is possible to achieve goals even if they take me out of my comfort zone, to take the plunge so to speak."

If you can help with sponsorship or want to know more about the Recovery Camps, email Ellie Johnston at the University of Wollongong: elliejo@uow.edu.au

Shared time gives insight

David Pritchard enjoyed the camaraderie.

David Pritchard enjoyed the camaraderie.

David Pritchard knew he’d made the right career choice after going to camp with a group of inspiring people who are dealing with mental health issues.

 “From a professional point of view, I gained experience in learning how to engage with people living with a mental illness. I learnt how they were managing their illness in their day-to-day living,’’ Mr Pritchard said. 

“It was important to see how their recovery journey was progressing and what they did to keep themselves well and out of hospital.’’

Mr Pritchard said the camp gave him a better insight about what services are available in the community for people living with a mental illness.

“Personally I feel that my choice to follow a career in mental health nursing was validated by attending the recovery camp. A person’s mental illness is just one of many aspects of their lives and it can be managed the same as any illness.

“It’s part of their life, not the ruling factor in their life.”

Mr Pritchard enjoyed the camaraderie between the students, consumers, faculty staff and camp staff. 

“Everyone started on a level footing, so we could learn from each other and support each other through the challenges and sometimes fears that the activities and the experience evoked.”

Mr Pritchard, now a Mental Health Registered Nurse, uses what he learned every day.

“Most of all, the camp was a fun experience that let all of us relax and learn ways to make the recovery journey of someone living with a mental illness, and those that care for and work with them, a better and more positive experience.”

- CYDONEE MARDON 

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