ISOLATION, financial pressures and the effects of drought - it's no secret that farmers are doing it tough.
However, rural communities are banding together to start conversations about mental health in the agriculture sector.
The Mail-Times spoke to three Wimmera farmers who are making a difference by encouraging others to reach out in times of need.
Social media phenomenon sparks conversation
WHEN St Helens Plains farmer Ben Brooksby posted a photo of himself sitting in lentils, naked, on social media, he had no idea it would spark conversations about farmer mental health.
The Naked Farmer started as a humble Instagram page where farmers would pose for photographs and share their experiences about life on the land.
It quickly turned into an empire with farmers across the country contacting Mr Brooksby to tell their stories.
"Everyone has a story to tell. Some farmers are very isolated. They may only be 15 minutes from town, but they make themselves isolated," he said.
"For instance, it's just Dad and I at our property. We can spend a whole day out in the paddocks and not talk at all. You have so much stuff to do, day-to-day.
"We are all touched by mental health at some point in our lives. There are so many forms of mental health and many are forgotten about.
"We're also living in modern age and social media is a great way for our community to connect. You just have to look at the wonderful comments we get on our posts - it's all positive."
Mr Brooksby said the origin of The Naked Farmer came from a deeply personal place.
"I lost my uncle to suicide when I was very young and that really fuels my passion with The Naked Farmer. I saw the ripple effects his death had on our family," he said.
"Eight Australians take their own lives every day. You really start to think about those families and the ripple effects those deaths have. I don't want any other families to have to go through that."
Mr Brooksby said his own experiences with anxiety had also driven him to start conversations with other farmers.
"I've dealt with my own anxiety and it's something that I've learned to deal with. Growing up it was really bad - I didn't like doing school sports and I couldn't talk in front of a class," he said.
"It was just Dad, my brother and myself living at home - so one of my jobs was doing the grocery shopping in town. Even a simple task like that, I couldn't do.
"I'd really have to push myself to do it. I'd get the trolley full and start to go through the check-out, then I'd start freaking out and ditch the trolley. I did that on many occasions.
"It wasn't until my grandma sat me down and asked me what was going on. She thought I had anxiety and suggested we'd go to the doctor.
"Grandma also had anxiety, as did other people in our family. I had no idea because we never talked about it. That's when it changed and we started opening up."
Mr Brooksby's family home burned down about three years ago which he said was a major turning point in learning to live with his anxiety.
"That was when I hit rock bottom. From that, my dad, grandpa and grandma gave me the task to rebuild the house," he said.
"I knew I would have no chance in doing that. How was I going to be able to talk to builders and walk into shops? But at the same time, I didn't want to let my family down.
"I really pushed myself to do it so something positive could come out of this terrible thing. I did things I never thought I could do and learned to control my anxiety.
"That's the message really - there are so many negatives in life that you have to seek out the positives and move on."
Last year Mr Brooksby travelled around Australia speaking to farmers as part of The Naked Farmer tour, and in June he toured Tasmania.
"It's amazing how many people want to catch up when I do a tour. I had almost 50 farmers reach out when I announced the Tassie tour. We were only there for 10 days but ended up photographing 35 people at 10 properties," he said.
"I'm really honoured they want to be a part of it and are happy to share their stories. At the end of the day, The Naked Farmer belongs to everyone. It wouldn't exist without their stories.
"When you see a well-respected person in your community do a photo, then the whole town talks about it. It's sparking conversations in so many ways.
"It's a way to break the ice and start people thinking. It's great that people are making a stand to say, 'it's okay to talk about mental health'."
In August 2020, Mr Brooksby and mental health advocate Jodie Morton will do a horseback tour through Queensland and New South Wales.
"We'll be meeting up with farmers, listening to their stories and doing photo shoots. There will be an auction at the end of it to raise money," he said.
"Every year I'd like to do a tour to get out there and take some awesome photos."
Mr Brooksby is also compiling a book of the stories and photographs he's collected since starting The Naked Farmer. He hopes the book will be completed by the end of 2020.
"We've got a range of undies coming out very soon, too, which have been a long time coming," he said.
"We also want to create a podcast, with farmers sharing their stories and health professionals sharing tips."
Reaching out makes a difference
IT was an on-farm accident and subsequent back injury that changed Rupanyup farmer Matt Hurley's life forever - and in more ways than he originally thought.
Mr Hurley had a mental breakdown following the accident and was diagnosed with depression in 2015.
"After I hurt my back, I fell into a pretty deep hole. I had been struggling before and I guess that was the straw that broke the camel's back," he said.
"I couldn't do anything physically and was bed-bound for many months. My wife Calinda told me that I was in denial and needed help, so I managed to do that and seek help out."
After speaking about his mental health with his GP, Mr Hurley started seeing a psychiatrist which he said made a huge difference.
"Once I made that move to seek help, everything fell into place," he said.
"It's hard to open up to your peers and family about what you've been going through and those day-to-day struggles, so having someone else to talk to was great."
He said some days were worse than others.
"I'm not too bad at the moment. I definitely can't say that I've beaten it - I have my really good days, and then my really bad days," he said. "But I know some coping mechanisms for myself for when I'm feeling like I'm back in that mindset.
"Because I work for myself, it's the isolation that affects me. It's amazing the amount of concerns that can run through your head when you're just doing your day-to-day work, sitting on the tractor or out herding the sheep."
Mr Hurley said it was great more farmers were becoming open to speaking about their mental health.
"There are certainly a lot more people speaking about it," he said.
"After I did a story in the Mail-Times (in 2016) where I spoke about my depression, a lot of people came up to me and said it had helped them. It's more widespread than it was 10 years ago."
Mr Hurley had some simple advice to others experiencing depression.
"Seek the help - whether it's your partner, a friend, a neighbour or your GP," he said.
Community connections provide help
VICTORIAN Farmers Federation president David Jochinke, of Murra Warra, has encouraged Wimmera residents wanting to address mental health concerns in their communities to apply for Look Over the Farm Gates grants.
"Talking about mental health and distress can be the most tricky conversation to have, but everyone in agriculture is feeling those emotions at the moment and finding it difficult," he said.
"The (Look Over the Farm Gates) program is there to let people know that they aren't on their own and they have the ability to get support."
The grants are open to community groups across the Horsham, Hindmarsh, Yarriambiack, Northern Grampians and Buloke shires.
Groups can apply for grants of up to $1500 to run events that address mental health and wellbeing.
"It gives people the capability of having a gathering which mental health or looking after your neighbours is part of the agenda - it doesn't have to be the main focus, but needs to be involved somehow," Mr Jochinke said.
"It's about bringing communities together. It could be a community barbecue with a guest speaker.
"We then make sure they have rural financial counsellors and a mental health specialist there as well for people to talk to.
"We find that informal gatherings are less confronting and people take them up more readily than if they were purely on mental health. The soft approach often gets the best impact."
- If you, or someone you know needs support, contact Lifeline on 13 11 14, Kids Help on 1800 55 1800 or Suicide Call Back Service on 1300 659 467
- Two-in-three regional Australians affected by suicide, data shows
- Wimmera groups, volunteers provide mental health support through advocacy
- Wimmera mental health advocate Lauren Dempsey encourages others to reach out
- Ballarat Health Services advocates for mental health beds in Horsham
- Wimmera mental health counselling wait times up to 12 weeks
- Wimmera advocates encourage men to talk about mental health
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