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“You’re just in a world of pain”: Meet the people tackling mens’ mental health in the bush

Men working on machinery

At the age of 22, Warren Davies became a farmer. He had moved to the Goulburn Valley as a teenager to help his parents run a dairy farm and after many years of farm work, he decided to buy a few hundred acres adjacent to his parents’ property.

“I knew that I was going into business with the bank, because they lent me the money,” said Davies.

“But I also had a silent business partner in Mother Nature. She was going to throw me some curve balls and have probably the biggest impact on my business and on my mental health.”

Davies had been experiencing mental health issues since he was young, but said it wasn’t something that he had acknowledged as a kid.

“I did nothing about it, never reached out,” he said.

“I buried that stuff and later on in life when I became a farmer myself, those challenges bit me on the bum.”

A few years later, his property experienced extensive flooding.

“It was a really challenging time. It started a spiral – it wasn’t depression, but I just didn’t feel like me. I pushed it to the background and hoped that it would sort itself out.”

A disagreement with his parents about the future direction of the farming business generated additional stress. Davies agreed to buy his parents out of the partnership, but in doing so, he took on a lot of debt. The family rift weighed on him and he found himself sinking into depression. Two years later, his region went into drought.

 “As it got worse and worse, it had a really big effect on me. I felt a lot of shame and guilt that I was failing as a farmer. I ended up in some pretty dark places. I got to the stage where I really couldn’t see a way out. I hit rock bottom and eventually attempted to take my own life.”

Davies said that it’s difficult to think rationally while you’re severely depressed. He believes that clinging to an idealised image of who he wanted to be, slowed his recovery.

“You’re just in a world of pain,” he continued.

“I’m a husband and a father and I have a loving family, but I felt I was letting them down. I felt that they were better off without me.”

“When we walked away from the farm, I unclipped my identity and I hooked on the front gate and I left it with my farm, because that’s who I thought I was going to be for the rest of my life. I thought I was going to be Warren the farmer and it hadn’t worked out.”

Recent studies have shown that the rate of suicide in regional and rural areas is 55% higher than it is in capital cities. Young men between the ages of 15 and 24 are particularly at risk.

Hazel Dalton, a researcher at the Centre for Rural and Remote Mental Health (CRRMH) in Orange, NSW, said that many contributors come together to put someone in a position where they would contemplate it.

“There’s a lot of environmental and socio-economic factors that come into play that can create a significant amount of stress like unemployment, a relationship breakdown, social isolation, some areas have poor access to services. We also know that there can be poor mental health literacy and [lack of recognition] that you’re in trouble.”

The CRRMH has undertaken research that is starting to provide more detail on why mental health outcomes are different between city and country areas.

“For young rural men, compared to their city counterparts, their relationship with their parents and family is probably more important than with their friends,” said Dalton.

“So if it’s good, that’s great, but if it’s not, then that’s really hard. We’ve also found that, while city kids are worried about getting the right job, rural kids are worried about getting a job at all. Moreover, they’re worried about having to move and be away from their social connections and support. So, it’s a bit more challenging for them.”

For Davies, a moment in time gave him the clarity he needed to start on the road to recovery.

“In one split second, I knew [suicide] wasn’t the answer. I call it my ‘two feet of perspective’,” he said.

“You think that it’s a unique thing that you’re going through, but it’s not. The more conversations I’ve had, particularly with blokes, once they’ve heard my story and then come over and opened up to me, I’ve learned that my story is definitely not unique. There are lot of blokes who are holding the same story but who aren’t talking about it. That’s why I do what I do.”

Davies is now a full-time motivational speaker, travelling around the country to share his story with regional communities.

man watching sunset

A range of community-led men’s mental health initiatives have sprung up in regional areas over the past few years. One that has received a lot of praise recently is a grassroots mental health program run by Mary O’Brien called ‘Are You Bogged, Mate?’. It all started when O’Brien wrote an article as part of her healing process after two suicides in her region.

“I went into bat for country men and said there’s nothing wrong with them, you just don’t understand them. That’s all I did, and it went viral.”

The ABC’s Landline program ran a segment on Mary’s initiative in July this year. The response was overwhelming.

“I’m quite humbled and blown away by the response that it’s had,” said Mary.

“To me, [my approach] was simple. I spend a lot of time presenting to blokes and I have a far idea of how they tick, the sort of information they want, and how they want it presented.”

Importantly, Mary said that the segment has resulted in a positive response from men in rural communities.

“I’ve had some feedback from service providers that offer counselling. They’ve been talking to blokes who say: ‘Oh I saw that Landline story’. So particularly with Rural Aid and the Virtual Psychologist, the two services mentioned in the Landline story, men have been reaching out to them.”

O’Brien said the COVID-19 crisis has made things more difficult for country people, just as it has for those in the city.

“Rural communities were suffering already from the impact of extended drought and horrific bushfires. When coronavirus came along, everyone was worried about rural people being isolated, but they’re used to isolation. What has changed is they’ve lost their social connections – so they can’t go to the cattle sales, they can’t go to the pub on a Friday night to catch up with friends, there’s no sport.”

Dalton pointed out that there were some positives that have come from the pandemic, however.

“Lockdown forced a change in a lot of health services. A lot of telehealth initiatives that had been sitting on the backburner suddenly got deployed,” she said.

Davies said bringing these issues into the light can help to turn people’s lives around.

“I never stand up in front of a group of people and say that I know it all. I’ve made all the mistakes, but I know the costs that they bring. I hope to start a conversation by sharing my own story and encouraging others to share theirs.”

If you or someone you know is in crisis, contact Lifeline for 24 hour crisis support.

Photos: CRRMH

Sarah Jacob

Sarah Jacob is a journalist and editor and is currently The Advocate's Deputy Editor. She has written for a range of print and online publications across Australia and internationally with a focus on the environment and human rights. Previously she worked in conservation science and protected area management, and has completed postgraduate degrees in journalism and marine science.

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