Jeremy SchaeferWhen Stuart Perry began his 1000-mile mental health advocacy walk to Chicago almost 15 years ago, he was ahead of a growing trend. Today, many individuals and groups take to the road to advocate for a cause, walking, running, or biking long distances to spread their messages.

Jeremy Schaefer is one such individual, and his cause, like Stuart’s, is mental health. Recently, Jeremy began a 2144-mile cross-country run in order to promote treatment for individuals with mental illness or substance abuse problems. The cause is one that hits close to home for the intrepid 37-year-old runner.

“I have been clean from alcohol and drug use for two years,” Jeremy explains. He also notes that he was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and ADHD in childhood. “I had to attack the stigma of mental illness. As I became older, I decided to do something for mental health awareness and to benefit the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI).”

Jeremy began his own journey last year, when he felt the time was right for him to begin. As he explains, “As a runner, it was time for me to actively run across the United States and advocate at each stop for mental health and substance abuse [treatment].”

An important stop along his route was a visit to Perry Wellness Center, where he met with Stuart, who undertook a similar journey in 1999. (Stuart’s own journey was documented by Rudy Hayes in the 2002 book, Journey for Life.) Jeremy had learned about the center from a local friend and mapped Americus into his route, including an overnight stay. After Stuart met Jeremy, he quickly planned a group session so that the mental health advocate could share his own story with peers at the center.

Jeremy’s story is one of perseverance and courage. He has been running 20-50 miles per day in a variety of weather conditions, pushing a baby stroller that contains all his supplies for the road. Describing his training prior to his cross-country run, Jeremy notes that he had run many 50- and 100-mile marathons in preparation.

Jeremy found that the intensive running had positive effects: “Running helped me cope with my past emotions and my drug and alcohol dependence memories. The more I ran, my mental thoughts and other formerly stressful issues became fewer.”

In times of adversity, Jeremy noted that he had previously used alcohol or drugs to help him cope. But running opened up a more productive outlet.

“I discovered that I could not rely on the expense and unhealthy use of alcohol and drugs to change my world,” he acknowledged. “I had to do other things to make my life better. I did some research and found that running was the best way to deal with my mental issues.”

Jeremy resides in Chester, Vermont, a small town of under 700, where he works as a carpenter. Divorced, he is the proud father of a son who is in the 5th grade. Before he began his run, Jeremy spent many hours with his son, who, Jeremy believes, understands his plan and mission for a worthwhile cause.

Jeremy had no large corporate sponsors to underwrite his long and expensive undertaking. But several friends helped him with his plans. One friend even provided a solar panel battery charger for his cell phone. The long-distance runner has also found supportive community leaders at each stop on his route. Several media outlets have also learned of his mission and interviewed Jeremy at several stops along the way. In Georgia he was interviewed by Fox 31 in Atlanta, as well as a Columbus television station when he traveled through central and southwest Georgia.

Jeremy’s run began in South Carolina, but he has no plans to run back to his home. He will fly back to Vermont at his trip’s end. The often barefoot runner will give his feet some needed rest. As of today, January 15, Jeremy has entered Mineola, Texas, but there are many miles still to go.

“One foot at a time across America” is the theme of the massive undertaking that is spreading a message of hope and recovery along the way. Jeremy sums up the message best:

“I do believe that more people are becoming aware of the mental health issues of Americans. I want to do what I can to speed this awareness. There is help out there for people who want it.”

In the photo, Jeremy Schaefer, second from left, is greeted by Noah Cochran, Stuart Perry, and Elizabeth Moss of Perry Wellness Center.

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