For Shannon Nevin, founder of Walk ‘n’ Talk for Life, this initiative started as a suicide prevention exercise. He’s the youngest of five kids, describing his family life growing up as ‘beautiful’. Shannon claims he was simply following the lead of his parents in looking for ways to give back to the community. Son to a motivational speaker and a philanthropic, when the timing became right to earn his own stripes in local circles suicide prevention felt intuitively right:
“As a personal trainer and a gym owner I’m used to motivating people,” he says.
Shannon established the first Walk n Talk for Life community get together in Manly, NSW, against a a simple set of criteria:
Offer people an opportunity to get together and connect with each other
Make it free to ensure there are no barriers to attending
Give participants a complimentary event-branded shirt to foster a sense of belonging to the Walk ‘n’ Talk for Life group.
Without any formal experience of mental health counseling, Shannon’s instincts turned out to be spot on. There have been countless studies proving that a sense of community belonging is intrinsically linked with a reduction in suicidal tendencies, including a report called Sense of Belonging a Youth Suicidal Behaviors by The University of Texas at Austin.
Expecting only a handful of people to that inaugural event, he received 200 signups. He reminisces about the incredible buzz of seeing 200 yellow shirts walking down the beach together. At that point, he knew he wanted this to be a regular occurrence.
Shannon’s events all end with a sausage sizzle where people can stay behind, get something to eat,and continue to socialise with each other. It begs the question: why not simply organise a community sausage sizzle? For two reasons, he says.
He’s passionate about the immense power of exercise to positively influence a feeling of wellbeing. And, as a personal trainer and a former Rugby League footballer with the Manly-Warringah Sea Eagles, he would know.
More importantly, Shannon knows something of the dynamics of human connection. “When I am facing a client in the gym they can find it confronting,” he says. “Whereas if I’m exercising alongside them they feel far more relaxed. When people are comfortable they are more likely to speak up about something they might need to speak up about.”
Both sentiments are emphatically supported by Peter Burge, founder of the Peerhear peer support telehealth service that includes exercise as one of its 10 Principles of Good Mental Health. “Particularly males tend to talk side by side,” he observes. “Doing something while talking is a more effective means of communicating than talking alone.”
As life so often tends to do, Shannon was dealt his own set of challenges when he found himself going through a divorce while trying to be a father to his three boys and run a small business (his gym) on his own. He remembers it as a highly stressful and testing time. Yet, instead of backing away from Walk ‘n’ Talk for Life, he doubled down on the initiative, experiencing it for the first time from both sides:
“I was getting more out of the walks I was organising than the people turning up to them,” he says.
Expanding out of the cities
Last year, in the midst of a pandemic when mental health was a forefront concern, Walk ‘n’ Talk for Life caught the eye of a board member of the Australian Horizons Foundation, who had attended a walk in Wagga Wagga. The foundation raises money to help country towns navigate things like mental health, severe drought, debt and the adequate provision of children’s education. A conversation with Shannon revealed that he was struggling to raise enough funds to scale to meet the demand from country towns, and that he was personally funding shirts. A partnership was immediately forged, which allowed Australian Horizons to invest in the ongoing growth of Walk ‘n’Talk for Life.
It was beyond Shannon’s wildest dreams. For him, expanding Walk ‘n’ Talk for Life had always been about reaching new areas. Especially rural areas where factors like isolation and higher unemployment contribute to the number of people living with mental health challenges. He felt it was important not to simply grow existing events, but add new ones. And, now that would be possible.
“Some of the most successful events are ones where only one or two people attend, but you get to spend time with someone who desperately needs it,” says Shannon. As exciting as it was to see 500 people turn out for the Lithgow event, he’s realistic about how deep connections can genuinely get in a crowd that big.
Keeping things real
And that’s the best part about what Shannon has built in creating a Walk ‘n’ for Life organisation now spanning 25 locations, and counting. He never loses sight of why it all started in the first place.
“Ultimately, Walk ‘n’Talk for Life is not there to break records or overshadow any other mental health initiative. The more people that are doing it, the more people we are going to save. That’s what I keep thinking,” says Shannon.
“At the same time, it’s less about the amount of people that turn up than the people that are there.”
We agree. It needn’t be more complicated than that.
If you want to find out if there is a Walk ‘n’ Talk for Life operating near you, or are interested in starting one, you can contact Shannon via the organisation’s website.