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Step Up: Managing mental health with music and movement

Two men give a double-handed high-five.
AeroGym is helping Fijians recover from mental illness.

ABC: Aaron Kearney

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Psychological illness, stigma and the side effects of medication once meant a life of isolation for many Fijians battling mental illness. But supported recovery that includes a tailor-made dance fitness program has proven a choreographed step in the right direction.

The furniture has been stacked high at one end of the room.

There's a queue for the change rooms.

One after another, they appear at the front door, shaking off the heavy downpour outside.

Stino is loading up the boom box, well aware everyone is pumped.

Three men stretch, balanced on one arm on the floor in a small room.
AeroGym is both fun and challenging.

ABC: Aaron Kearney

"I like the steps and moves," says Asena.

"It's very exciting," offers John.

"It makes me feel happy."

The fuss and buzz is because it is AeroGym time.

Fiji's Community Recovery Outreach Program (CROP) is run out of a humble building high on a hill above Suva. Created six years ago as a way for Fijians who have suffered often-severe mental illness to re-integrate into the community, its walls are adorned with their confronting stories. Stories of anger, stories of illness but also stories of hope and ambition.

A woman poses in front of a grey door that bears a "C.R.O.P" sign.
CROP Nurse in Charge Ilivia Tava.

ABC: Aaron Kearney

"Most of them, when they came in, preferred to be alone," remembers CROP Nurse in Charge Ilivia Tava.

"They were afraid to go out."

CROP tackles that isolation by offering a sense of community, and group exercise is a cornerstone of the program's philosophy. AeroGym, the Australian Aid-backed Gymnastics Australia dance fitness program that combines aerobics and gymnastics is a simple, fun and highly-effective way to assist recovery.

"The medication they are taking has side effects," Ilivia explains.

"One of the side effects is they grow. They become big.

"That's why they should do their daily exercise, so they don't become obese and those side effects can't be really seen."

Development Officer Selevasio Stino Lebaiwasa, known to all simply as "Stino", leads the session with all the enthusiasm you'd expect from an aerobics instructor, and gets both delighted and occasionally bemused responses to his upbeat demands to "climb the mountain" and "do the grapevine" while the boom box belts out Sia's Chandelier.

Two women sit on the floor and stretch their arms.
Asena Waganimaravu has been attending CROP for five years.

ABC: Aaron Kearney

"I like the steps and moves that we do," says Asena, who first came to CROP five years ago.

"It helps me moving my body. I like the recent songs."

"Sometimes it's hard, sometimes easy," says John, who is positioned in the front row for the duration.

"I usually get a bit tired."

After about 20 minutes, drenched in sweat from the brutal Fijian humidity, he wasn't the only one.

A man stands on tiptoes with his arms outstretched in front of him.
Stino's enthusiasm is infectious.

ABC: Aaron Kearney

Dripping and smiling all the way, Stino was born to do this work.

"It's a passion," he grins.

"It's my passion for fitness. I help people.

"Meeting the challenges here, I don't see as a hard thing.

"They're from all walks of life and they have faced their obstacles.

"This brings them a new life and a fresh beginning.

"I see it on their face. I see it when they smile, when they laugh."

A man stands with his hands clapped together in front of him. A woman stands to the right of him.
The AeroGym sessions offer physical and social development as well as fun.

ABC: Aaron Kearney

Some CROP attendees have found work, others have returned to school or university. But Stino feels he, too, is undergoing a transformation, just from spending time at CROP.

"Being engaged with these people, getting to know them from when they started to the end point, and seeing the difference, it will change my life.

"It makes me the person I am."

But if he wants to uncover Fiji's next Olympic gymnast, he may need to look further than Asena, in the back row of his Tuesday morning AeroGym session at CROP.

"I watched the gymnastics at the Olympics but I'll be a soccer player, not a gymnast," she says, apparently appalled at the very suggestion, despite her enthusiasm during the session.

"I think my niece will be the gymnast."

Four men and one woman face a male group instructor and stretch one leg forward in front of them.
Warm down.

ABC: Aaron Kearney

If you are feeling distressed, or need advice or support, you should consult your local medical professional. If you're in Australia, support is available via Lifeline 13 11 14 and SANE Australia 1800 18 SANE (7263).

This story was produced by ABC International Development as part of the Pacific Sports Partnerships funded by the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

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