Walking for those left behind

REACHING the halfway point of her 3000-kilometre walk, Donna Bowman stepped into Swan Hill last Tuesday and sat down with The Guardian for a frank discussion of mental health, suicide, and the impact on those left behind. 

DONNA Bowman's life changed forever on March 18, 2018, when she found the body of her husband, Tony, after he committed suicide on the family property. 

A former Victoria Police officer, Ms Bowman said Tony had shown no signs or symptoms of his internal struggle. 

Donna Bowman, second from left, with members of the Swan Hill Police Station on the road to Swan Hill last Tuesday morning. Picture: CAITLIN McARTHUR

Donna Bowman, second from left, with members of the Swan Hill Police Station on the road to Swan Hill last Tuesday morning. Picture: CAITLIN McARTHUR

Tony left behind four children, six grandchildren, and a loving wife, who continue to struggle with the sudden loss. 

"This is something I have said to people, time and time again — I am angry over what has happened, because my husband changed my life, without even consulting me," Ms Bowman said. 

"I think that is something that perhaps people who have suicide on their mind as an option need to think about, because my kids' lives and my life were changed. 

"I lost my home, and when I say I lost it, I sold it because I found myself laying on the back deck, staring at the tree he was hanging in...I lost my future, because we had everything planned, we had our life planned and he just took all that away."

Exactly one year on from Tony's suicide, Ms Bowman set off from Geelong on a 3000-kilometre walk across the state, in an effort to start a conversation about mental health, stigma, suicide, and the ripple effect on those left behind. 

It's not an easy conversation to have, but since embarking on her statewide trek, it's one Ms Bowman has had it time and again, with media, serving and former Victoria Police officers who joined her on the road, and members of the public she has simply met along the way. 

She has quite literally started a conversation, something Ms Bowman said was her aim all along — the walk was "just the tool" to get it started. 

The funds raised during her walk — she has an ambitious goal of $1 million — will go to the Victoria Police Welfare Services Unit, to support current and past members struggling with their mental health. 

It's a goal she is well on her way to meet, thanks to donations from friends, family, and "total strangers".

Ms Bowman said she has even had people stop her on the side of the road to hand over a donation, something she "never expected".

It has been no easy feat to keep going after she lost Tony, and Ms Bowman said some days it's not clear what keeps her moving forward, beyond her desire to be there for her children. 

"The first few months were pretty tough, I ended up taking an overdose myself and I woke up to my four kids faces, and I just thought, 'I have to do something'," she said. 

"The first few months were pretty tough, I ended up taking an overdose myself and I woke up to my four kids faces, and I just thought, 'I have to do something'."

DONNA BOWMAN

With a PhD in psychology, Ms Bowman said one of the first steps was asking herself what she would advise her clients to do. 

"One of the first things I would recommend is exercise, that decreases depression, it increases serotonin, so I started exercising, hence the walk," she said. 

Ms Bowman lost 36 kilos in preparation for the walk, down another four since she first hit the pavement, she "physically can't eat enough". 

The walk has been far from easy, Ms Bowman has blisters which cover her feet and a stress fracture in the top of her right foot, suffered when she hit Mildura. 

It has also included long periods of isolation, joined by seven members of the Swan Hill Police Station on Tuesday, it was the first time she had any company on the road since she hit Horsham. 

But, with her band-aids on her blisters, "rigid taping" on her foot, and a determined mindset, Ms Bowman has continued on her way.

She said her family were incredulous when she first came up with the idea for the Those Left Behind walk.

"My son turned around and said, 'I think we should have had you locked up when we had the chance'," she said. 

"They thought I was crazy, because at that time I was 40 kilos heavier than I am now, and the week after my husband died I was due to have two discs removed from my spine and two titanium ones put in because of arthritis — I was in a lot of pain.

"My son said, 'You're not going to be able to do it mum', and that was like a red rag to a bull, telling me I can't do something."

But, now at the halfway point, Ms Bowman is well on her way to proving it possible. 

"I am actually quite proud of myself, I have made it this far and I said right from the start, I don't see why I won't be able to make it, barring something going terribly wrong," she said. 

"But, in the back of my mind — I have arthritis, I have osteoporosis — there was that thought of, 'oh maybe', I didn't say that to anyone, but I was doubting myself. 

"But now I am halfway down I think that it is absolutely doable.

"Plus, I just have so much support, like over Facebook, from people I don't even know and that is encouraging, it is encouraging to sit there every night and just read everyone's posts and go, 'Yeah, we're getting this, we're doing this'."

Ms Bowman said the more discussions around mental illness were made public and the less stigma attached, the more likely it is people will feel they are able to reach out to seek support when they need it. 

It's something she has experienced along the way, from conversations with farmers at the Patchewollock Pub, to police officers, to journalists and strangers on the roadside, who have opened up to her about how mental illness has touched their lives. 

"It is allowing people to talk when they otherwise wouldn't, and that is really important," she said. 

"I have so many people on Facebook who have been left behind after suicide, and they are opening up as well, they feel they can talk to me because I understand, and I am a voice for them. 

"If we can save one life, then that is one family that hasn't been left behind."

Ms Bowman had a careful request of any past or current serving member of Victoria Police currently considering suicide as an option, one she knows can be taken the wrong way, but that she asks from personal experience. 

"It is very hard to put this into words so people don't take offence...but basically, I want to let them know that killing themselves isn't an answer to their problems, it just passes the problems onto everyone else," she said.

"And the people that are left behind have a lifetime of trauma, so I would ask them to reach out for help, rather than taking that drastic action and save their family from a lifetime of trauma, because you don't forget." 

Ms Bowman said there are some changes she would like to see made within Victoria Police, to ensure better support for officers who may be struggling.

"There is a definite need for police to have assistance, particularly in the form of mandatory debriefing," she said. 

"Most other places now, like the State Emergency Service and Country Fire Authority have mandatory debriefing, but not police, so I'd like to see that happen.

"There are many police who need assistance, but won't ask for it, so if we can build up that welfare unit, and police officer's confidence in that unit, then we will be a whole lot better off as far as police suicide goes."

With the Head to Head Walk run last year by Victoria Police and the the Police Association Victoria, to highlight the struggle of current and past officers with their mental health, Ms Bowman said the organisation was already headed in the right direction. 

"I think they are saying all the right things now, but what is important is that they are now put into action," she said. 

"They are absolutely headed in the right direction, 100 per cent, but there just needs to be more confidence now that police can approach these units and get help without it affecting their prospects for promotion in the future, because that is what I'm hearing they are worried about."

Ms Bowman knows well that it is one thing to tell someone to seek support, and another thing entirely for them to do it, but believes that very difficult conversation is always better than the alternative. 

"I know that people get down, I have done it myself, but there needs to be a point where you reach out for help, rather than taking that option, and we need to remove the stigma," she said.