WHEN Marc Nieuwenhuys set out on a solo kayak expedition paddling the Murray River to beat depression, he never imagined his journey would save other people’s lives, too.
During his 107-day journey late last year, the Canberra handyman says he learnt a lot about himself, broke free of his depression and inspired thousands of conversations about mental health along the way.
“People were desperate to talk… and everyone I spoke to had a story,” he said.
The 43-year-old paddled alone on his kayak through three states, past 37 towns, taking more than 2.5 million paddle strokes.
The epic 2409-kilometre voyage, along Australia’s longest river began in Bringenbrong, NSW, and finished at the mouth of the river in Goolwa, SA in December.
Nieuwenhuys blogged and tracked his entire journey. His Facebook page, “Talking About a Lonely Journey”, has 24,000 followers and people from all over the world are joining the conversation.
“Someone emailed me and said: ‘I didn’t commit suicide last week… you are inspiring me to move forward’,” he said.
“I’m just a dude who paddled down the river talking about mental health and starting conversations. It’s not clinical, it’s not judgemental, I’m not offering advice, I was just talking about my mental health.”
And it’s these conversations that kept him going.
“It was 44 degrees, there was a 40 km/h head wind and I paddled past a boat and a guy called out: ‘Are you mental… what are you doing?’,” he said.
“He invited me on board, gave me a beer, cooked me fish for dinner and we had a chat. He showed me the scar around his neck where he tried to hang himself and he survived. He now lives an incredible life on the water.
“Eight people every day in Australia commit suicide. You don’t hear about that, we are not talking enough, we are not sharing and not talking.”
Nieuwenhuys, who battled with depression for eight years, described his depression as “another version of himself” that wanted him to be “sad” and “lonely”.
“I was at the bottom of a horrible hole and I needed to do something about it. I knew I was suffering from depression, but I didn’t have any tools to try and fix it or learn how to deal with it,” he said.
“The more people I talked to along the way, the stronger I became. The more I shared my story, the more I encouraged others to also start talking.
“This journey has completely changed my life. I’m a different human being to what I was.”
Nieuwenhuys plans to continue his journey spreading messages about mental health and breaking down the stigma around depression.
He’s writing a book about his journey and wants to keep engaging with people about depression, especially those living along the Murray-Darling Basin communities.
“I bought a house boat in Goolwa and I’m refurbishing it and converting it into a place for people to come aboard and talk, and I’ll do the trip again down the Murray in reverse,” he said.
“The boat needs a lot of work, but it floats, and it runs, and it will be the perfect platform for people to come have a cuppa and chat.”
Affectionately known as the “Mental Health Ship”, Nieuwenhuys says it will act as a “port of call” for people wanting to access mental health services.
“People don’t know about the support that’s out there… and there’s heaps of support available,” he said.
“I spoke to a mum on my journey who was beside herself, in tears for her son, who’s in need of support and they are waiting weeks to get someone to see him.
“There are more than 37 towns along the way, so we will research every single town before we arrive and find out everything mental health related… If there’s a Vinnies, Salvo’s, Mental Health support group, doctors, Men’s Shed… we will find them and let people know about them.”
Nieuwenhuys hopes to raise $25,000 for the ‘Mental Health Ship’ through a crowd fundraising page at indiegogo.com/projects/building-the-mental-health-ship#/