Offcuts: Rural mental health crisis being tackled from within

EVEN before I started working in the agricultural sector, through personal connections of my own I already knew how serious the issue of mental illness in rural Australia was.

Without going into too much detail out of respect for those involved, the situation was as follows:

A much-loved young man living in a well-known South Australian rural region, running a successful enterprise, the captain of the winning local football club and seemingly with the world at his feet.

Then, out of nowhere, he takes his own life.

The outpouring of grief from the local community was like nothing I’d seen before – his death touched so many people, with the old country adage that “everybody knows everybody” ringing true in this case.

It’s just plain fact that rural communities are more tight-knit than their metropolitan counterparts, with both celebratory moments and tragedies bringing people together in a way that can only happen in country regions.

And that “ripple effect’ is why so many people are being affected by the current mental illness epidemic in rural Australia.

While here at Quality Wool we’re only too happy to sponsor an initiative like the Coolamon Shear 4 Mates event in NSW’s Riverina region, raising awareness of rural mental health and suicide prevention, the sheer statistics that make such an event necessary are frightening.

According to data from national mental health charity SANE, suicide rates in rural regions are consistently 40 per cent above those in metropolitan areas, however 50 per cent less money is spent on mental health services in rural and remote Australia.

So while wool may be enjoying a prosperous renaissance at present, it’s easy to forget that things aren’t always so rosy in a high-pressure industry such as agriculture which is dependent on uncontrollable factors such as weather and climate.

Stress and financial pressure due to drought, feelings of isolation, high travel times to access support services and a lingering stigma around mental illness in smaller communities are just a few of the reasons why young men and women in the country are taking their own lives at alarming rates.

The good thing is that something is starting to be done about it – both at ground zero and an executive level.

From within the heart of the issue, a grassroots movement of people affected by the loss of mates to suicide are tackling the issue by coming up with their own initiatives and events.

As mentioned above, Quality Wool sponsored the Shear 4 Mates event in Coolamon in October where local shearer Jarrod Edyvean sheared for 12 hours to support suicide prevention, having previously lost both his best mate and uncle to the “black dog”.

In fact, the people of Coolamon are so determined to tackle the scourge of mental illness that they’ve formed a 60-person strong committee, comprising everyone from a former football association president to a retired solicitor, to promote positive mental health messages and events.

To compliment the work being done from within rural communities, more is now being done at a higher level and we’re (Quality) fortunate enough to be part of it.

Quality’s Business Support Manager Gen Dyson this month began her three-year term as a member of the new National Advisory Panel for Rural Community Wellbeing, a group assembled to provide expert advice on key issues impacting rural community health, including farmer suicide prevention.

The brainchild of Associate Professor Lia Bryant from the University of South Australia’s Centre for Social Change, the panel is comprised of farmers involved in community wellbeing, government representatives from country health and primary industries, agricultural industries, agri-business and superannuation industries.

As a proudly independent business, our clients are everything and having a seat on the board will put us in the best possible position to represent their interests and that of the wider rural community.

On the airwaves, the new ‘Let’s Talk’ podcast series hosted by ABC journalist Kia Handley is encouraging people to strike up a conversation about mental in rural and regional Australia with colleagues, friends and family.

In each episode, you’ll hear from people who have battled with their mental health, been through tragedy and come out of the other side, as well as from the people who have helped them on their journey.

Most crucially, the podcast discusses where and when to get help when you need it.

With the issue now being tackled from both ends, awareness being increased and the stigma slowly being broken down, it’s hopeful that the damning statistics around mental illness in rural Australia will start heading south.

And it’s high time that it happened, because it’s okay to say you’re not okay – no matter your postcode or how many acres you live on.

If you or someone you know is experiencing mental health issues, call:

Kane McKay