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Burin Peninsula principal walks 50 kilometres to help end mental health stigma

Christ the King’s principal Lee Masters leads a group of students during his second annual walk for mental health.
Christ the King’s principal Lee Masters leads a group of students during his second annual walk for mental health. - Martine Blue

RUSHOON, N.L.

For Lee Masters, walking is therapeutic.

The principal of Christ the King School in Rushoon started walking short distances of a couple of kilometers two and a half years ago to improve his physical health.

He caught the walking bug in a big way and this summer he completed a 10-day hike from Cappahayden to St. John’s as well as 122 kilometres with the Burin Peninsula hiking group. What he discovered was that the physical challenge of walking improved his mental health.

“When you are walking, you can go as deep into your thoughts as you want to go or you can go brainless,” Masters said. “I find walking a wonderful pastime because it does the body good but also does the mind good.”

The mental health benefits of walking lead Masters to the brainstorm of walking to spread mental health awareness, which Masters says we all struggle with at various points in our lives.

“I think we all have to recognize it’s not a they and them issue, but a we and us issue,” Masters said. “Just as we all have to recognize we all have poor physical health sometimes, we also all have poor mental health sometimes.

“It’s about healthy conversations and removing some of the stigma about talking to a family member about mental health in the same way as if we were talking about having the flu or a broken leg or something that was of a physical nature. I think we need to have those same conversations around mental health.”

To promote awareness, Masters embarked on his second annual 50 kilometre hike from his home in Winterland to the school in Rushoon.

Leaving at 3:30 a.m. Wednesday, Oct. 10 (World Mental Health Awareness Day) and arriving in Rushoon 11 hours and 23 minutes later, Masters says this year’s trek was more challenging than last year’s.

“It was more difficult this year and that sort of captures the essence of what I’m trying to achieve,” Masters stated. “It was wet and at times it was cold and at times it was lonely and that gives me a glimpse of the mindset that some people find themselves in.”

Masters did not walk the entire trip alone. At Red Harbour, he was joined by 12 of his senior students as well as vice-principal Aaron Murphy. The group took the old Burin Peninsula highway, which connects Red Harbour to Rushoon. Masters wanted to keep the students safe by not having them walk on the shoulder of a busy highway, but says the old 12 kilometre trail also has cultural significance.

Following the walk, Grade 11 student Charlotte Gaulton was tired but glad she joined her principal’s initiative.

“I felt like it was the biggest accomplishment,” she said. ‘I didn’t even know I could do this. Twelve kilometres seemed like a lot. I’m so proud. It was amazing.”

Charlotte says everyone struggles with mental illness at some point.

“He’s such a big inspiration to every single one of the students in that school and the message that he’s trying to put out there is that no one is alone and I’m really glad he’s putting it out there,” she said.

Trystan Whittle, a Grade 11 student, agrees that Master’s message is important and hopes their hike opens up the conversation about mental illness.

“A lot of people are afraid to talk about it because of the stigma that we built around it that you can’t talk about it because you’ll be made fun of,” Trystan commented. “You won’t be made fun of though because there’s lots of people who want to help you.”

Master’s senior students are not the only ones who came out to support him. The rest of his 98 member student body came out to the bridge at Old Road to cheer him on and walk the remaining one kilometer back to the school with him. Masters was thrilled to receive so much encouragement and support from students and staff and hopes it sparks deeper conversations. “It’s a wonderful feeling when people show up to support,” Masters said. “When you see a kid and a smile comes on their face, even though they are dog tired, but they have that sense of, ‘I just did something amazing’ — that can only boost their mental health and that spreads, because they are going to go home tonight and sit down to the supper table with their family and they’re going to have a story to share.”

He continued, “I’m going to bet that message will be shared with extended family and friends and there will be healthier conversations in these communities tonight because of the involvement of those kids today.”

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