Farmers and mental distress: 'I'm still a bit ashamed about my story'

As isolation, drought and economic hardship take their toll, an initiative to reduce stigma is helping to save lives in rural Australia

Joe Meggetto, a dairy farmer from Victoria’s Warragul South, says that at various points throughout his life he’s wandered his farm with persistent thoughts of suicide. He would sit in a paddock after milking and sob. Loneliness and the day-to-day pressures of farming were grinding away at him. “There were some bloody dark times there,” he says.

“It got to the stage where once Michelle, my wife, invited my best man around and we had a talk. That’s, for me, what got the ball rolling. My experience is, in the end, I had my three boys and I wanted to seek help.”

Talking about mental health hasn’t come easy to the 52-year-old. What Meggetto calls the “male macho” mentality, alongside an initial reluctance to seek formal services, has made it difficult to speak out. But having now received support, he advises fellow farmers and farm workers to take that first step.

Meggetto is one of the many farmers at risk across rural Australia. The combination of drought and the resulting economic malaise in farming has led to a crisis of farmer distress and suicide. The suicide rate for Australia’s farming men is about double the general male population, sitting at 32.2 compared with 16.6 per 10,000. This is a difference that has been documented since the 1980s, but with little change to rates of suicide. While research often focuses on farm owner-operators, farm labourers account for 46.9% of farmer suicides. Eighty-seven per cent are men. While male farmers are reluctant to seek professional help, it is now being shown that ongoing lack of health services – including in some cases access to a GP – in rural areas compounds their despair.

Meggetto’s story was featured in the 2018 Gippsland Jersey calendar. Now, 24 farmers and farm workers across rural South Australia are opening up for two calendars for 2019 about psychological distress, drought and how their lives and communities have been impacted by suicide. A partnership between the National Enterprise for Rural Community Wellbeing at the University of South Australia and Country SA Primary Health Network, the calendars see farmers and farm workers speak out about hope and recovery strategies for mental health and wellbeing.

The calendar began last year with Sallie Jones, partner in Gippsland Jersey and member of the board of the National Enterprise for Rural Community Wellbeing. It was launched on her late dairy farmer father’s birthday, the motivation for which, Jones says, “is sharing the story about my dad’s mental health which led to his suicide. It was a really powerful medium to try to change the stigma in our own rural community”.

“Storytelling is powerful in order to create less stigma around mental health. It breaks it down. It makes it real. Not a statistic in a magazine or newspaper. It’s real people battling real things.” Jones believes Meggetto’s role in the calendar has helped them achieve more reach, encouraging others experiencing distress to seek help. “His phone has been ringing. He has saved lives, all because he’s had the calendar as a platform to share his story,” she says.

Angus, a farmer from Broken Hill talks about mental health in the Gippsland Jersey calendar 2019
Angus, a farmer from Broken Hill, reveals his mental health struggles in the 2019 Gippsland Jersey calendar. Photograph: Robert Lang/Robert Lang Photography

The farmers – hailing from the Yorke Peninsula, Eyre Peninsula, Murray Mallee North and the Riverland – paint a compelling story in the calendar. Farm worker Angus, raised on a property in Broken Hill, struggled during a drought which brought dust storms at a time when his wife experienced a miscarriage. “In that time, I think I probably had been struggling a little bit. I went to see a doctor and I must have called the men’s helpline, or at least that’s what Karen tells me, I have no recollection of that. Must have just been thinking ‘What is this?’ and going downhill.”

Emma, a shepherd from Yorke Peninsula, said she “didn’t understand what depression was. I didn’t know. It’s isolating, it’s withdrawal, it’s fear, it’s a lot of anger and a lot of misunderstanding. And it frightens me now when I look back, I just thought it was me.”

In the 2019 calendar, Darron “Chook” Letton, an egg farmer in the Riverland, compares the pressure of farming to gambling. “I wouldn’t spend money on pokies or horse racing. But doing this is far worse. Labour. Time. Inputs. That’s gambling. Big time. Like, $50,000 for me.” And with the stress of farming, Letton says it’s common to “know people who’ve had depression and they don’t realise”.

“Make sure you stay in contact. Especially if they’re saying stuff like I don’t need to be here. That’s worrying,” he says. Psychological distress is personal to Letton, as one of his best friends took her own life. “You wouldn’t have known that was going to happen. She was only 37.”

While the farming community works to break the stigma of mental health, the lack of access to resources continues to have a detrimental impact. Once a farmer decides to seek help, where do they go?

Shepherd Emma with family on beach
Emma, a a shepherd from Yorke Peninsula, says initially she ‘didn’t understand what depression was’. Photograph: Robert Lang/Robert Lang Photography

Annabelle, a farmer, found that “in rural areas there is not much support so if you want to get help you need to go to a fair bit of effort to get it”. For a telephone consult with a psychologist, Annabelle was met with a six-month waiting list. In 2015, farm worker Deon Richardson travelled to Adelaide to seek treatment. “I had a relationship breakdown and that put me into a severe depression. That got very intense and quite bad and resulted in me spending time in Glenside mental health service,” he says.

Eight years ago, Nat Traeger, the director of community and corporate at Coorong district council in Tailem Bend, experienced “this spate of male suicides” in her community. During this time, Traeger knew a councillor who kept a list of farmers he was concerned about and would regularly check in on.

Daniel, another Riverland man, understands the impact of mental health and farming acutely, having watched his father live with severe depression: “We’ve had a few close calls when he’s been really bad, which is hard as we don’t have a lot of resources at our disposal in a hurry. It doesn’t happen weekly, or even yearly. All of a sudden out of nowhere, it just happens.” Access to resources has proved a particular obstacle for Daniel’s family. “We only just got phone service here,” he says. Travelling with his father to a hospital isn’t easy either, Daniel says. Berri is over 70km away.

Meggetto argues the way services are delivered needs to be tailored to rural communities’ unique needs. “People who struggle with mental health, we don’t want to go and see a person in a suit in an office. We want to see people who’ve got their feet on the ground and understand each and every individual working side of agriculture,” he says. Meggetto suggests dairy companies should employ a psychologist who can aid farmers who experience mental distress, especially in times of drought.

Sallie Jones agrees: “I don’t think any farmer has any respect for a city slicker coming out and telling them how their life should be.” She speaks highly of services such as Lifeline, but believes “there’s a perception that Lifeline is a last resort … But it should actually be the first place [to get help] because there are resources like the callback line”.

Lia Bryant, an associate professor in the School of Psychology, Social Work and Social Policy at the University of South Australia, organised the 2019 calendars in the hope of gaining further understanding of rural suicide prevention networks. Prevention networks, she explains, are community-led programs that aid people experiencing distress and extend to large awareness-raising events.

“Urban people get choices,” Bryant says. “[But] in rural areas when people see people suffering or there is a suicide, people are more likely to bind together to create some kind of group or network to support members of their community. We’re seeing these spring up all over Australia.” These networks are born from grief, Bryant says, “but also [speak] to hope. Wanting to make things better in the communities they live in and support their peers.”

Farmer Annabelle on her horse
Annabelle was met with a six-month waiting list when she tried to get a telephone appointment with a psychologist. Photograph: Robert Lang/Robert Lang Photography

Bryant works alongside South Australia’s Primary Health Network (PHN) to create the calendars so that “people who are also experiencing mental illness can identify themselves in the stories and come to an understanding that they’re not alone. That this is not, unfortunately, an uncommon experience. It’s not about individual failure or inability to cope, it’s about the kinds of lives that farm people lead are stressful lives.”

Chez Curnow, the manager of mental health and alcohol and other drugs at Country SA PHN, echoes this thought, saying: “It is my hope [these stories] generate discussions around the water trough, in sheds, at the kitchen table and over the farm gate. The promotion of mental health and wellbeing is in everybody’s interest and reducing stigma and prejudice can encourage people to seek help.

“People often tell us they do not know where to go for help, so importantly the calendar has a range of local contacts for wellbeing and mental health supports available in their region.”

Bryant says while the calendar is a strong start, “there’s no research to tell us how to create tailored strategies for suicide prevention for men in farming in particular. We don’t know what strategies will best work.”

Yet, there is hope. Thanks to social media, urban Australia is waking up to the realities of farmer distress, says Bryant. “[During] the last drought, I think people really knew very little in urban areas. The complications of drought only hit the city when water restrictions were applied to their gardens,” she says.

“Since that last drought, farmers have spoken up on social media in a way that was not done before. More urban people are hearing about some of the stressors that farmers are experiencing, seeing some of the photos of dry earth and nothing growing, difficulties feeding animals. There’s starting to be an understanding.”

Slowly but surely, stories like Joe Meggetto’s are breaking through. He says he’s “still a bit ashamed about my story”.

“Because of the struggles, you’ve still got that element of embarrassment about it, but as time is going on, the conversations you have and the people you talk to, it is certainly getting easier.”

Ultimately, Meggetto says, “our ambition, what we’re trying to do, is if we can help that one person, it’s working. I strongly believe it is working.”

• Crisis support services can be reached 24 hours a day: Lifeline 13 11 14; Suicide Call Back Service 1300 659 467; Kids Helpline 1800 55 1800; MensLine Australia 1300 78 99 78; Beyond Blue 1300 22 4636


Katerina Bryant

The GuardianTramp

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