Wheat and sheep farmer John Harper has been helping blokes in country Australia since 2006. Setting up Mate Helping Mate was his way of addressing the feelings he personally experienced when he was bitten by the black dog in his 40s. We love the bush, he says, but sometimes the bush doesn’t love us back.
John’s experience with depression intensified over a 6-9 month period when he convinced himself he was dying of cancer and sat on the porch all day while his wife went to work as a school teacher. She started to sense there was something seriously wrong with her husband and pressed him to see a doctor, which he grudgingly agreed to do.
His doctor put him through a series of medical tests, but instead of backing up John’s prognosis that he had cancer, told John he had depression and should see a counsellor.
“I got out of my seat and I near throttled him,” recalls John in his new podcast series, MATE HELPING MATE.
“I was crying and sooking, I’ve got to go home and tell my wife, tell my mates, I’m mental. In my ignorance that’s what I thought.”
He argued with the doctor that he should be "strong enough to hold a bull out to piss," but the doctor – also a personal friend as well as being a health professional - urged him to "back the bus up buddy, back it up."
Translating, this meant to reach out to his mates and let them know what was going on. So, fighting his own beliefs that a "mental" diagnosis was somehow shameful for a rugged sheep shearer, John opened up to his friends. Not long after, several blokes talked to him about their own personal struggles. The trust and the sharing helped. Another farming buddy gave him work tasks like fixing fences. He went on small dates with his wife. Slowly his lethargy lifted.
Today, John still runs his mixed farm in Stockinbingal, NSW, 110kms north of Wagga Wagga. While he hasn’t gone through the worst the drought has to offer, many of his colleagues have.
Mate Helping Mate was established to help them in a number of ways such as the setting up of the Rural Outreach Counselling (ROC) program, started in the Riverina region of NSW and now extending into southern NSW and parts of northern Victoria.
The Matekeeper program aims to identify people at risk and help them find the most appropriate solution.
“Behind that we have qualified counsellors to help with people above their skill level,” says John.
Minute for a Mate was established in 2008, whereby John encouraged people to take a minute every Monday to ring a mate. He regularly attends community events, like having a barbecue in a shearing shed with a dozen farmers, or pitching a swag overnight, and giving informal talks. It’s these small measures that are most effective.
“I’m a simple joker talking about why mental health is everybody’s business and what to do if you think a mate is struggling.”
Now more than ever, John Harper’s "ordinary" measures are needed as his farming community comes to terms with the on-going and diabolical impact of drought, bushfires and now, COVID-19.
Coming together in groups is increasingly more challenging with the current directive to keep socially isolated.
“We get our energy from our communities,” he says. “Even if it rains, it’s still going to be tough. A lot of us don’t have much money because of the drought and we can’t come together to talk about it. It’s a perfect storm in regards to mental wellbeing, and the cusp of the slide into possible suicidology.”
John’s six-part podcast series, available on Google, Apple, Stitcher and Spotify was produced late last year and released at the start of March.
The podcast has had a strong response, quickly jumping to a five-star rating and a healthy 4000 listeners. Farmers, male and female, share their stories of hardship on the podcast, their slide into depression and how they found a way up.
John’s goal is to provide simple strategies to get back in the game, or as John puts it in his frank bush vernacular, “to get from a shit place to a better place.”
“People have to acknowledge they have a problem then we have to motivate them somehow to move forward,” he says.
“We’re very much focused on preventative and early intervention. Most organisations are focused on crisis, they are reactionary. There’s a shitload of stuff we can do before we get to this point, that might prevent people sliding any deeper. They might be miserable but they are not heading into a crisis.”
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