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We just can’t shake hands: reaching out to rural and remote men

The Men’s Health Connected online summit continued on Thursday with a lens on how rural and remote men are coping amidst an unprecedented and constant wave of challenges. Drought, flooding plains, bushfires and more recently coronavirus, many are at breaking point.

Mix in the on-going personal issues many blokes are dealing with on any given day, from relationship stress and family breakdown, to battles with alcohol, bereavement and health challenges, it is no surprise to learn that rural blokes are twice as likely to take their own lives as metropolitan men.

Contributing to the discussion - How are rural men coping with drought, bushfires, covid-19? – Are You Bogged Mate? founder Mary O’Brien said she started her program to change the way mental health and suicide is communicated to men.

“Rural blokes do open up and they do talk and they do have emotional intelligence … but you need to understand how they connect and where they connect,” she said.

“Blokes in the bush are different and they are pretty special. Things are just different in the bush. The stigma around mental health is greater. Men feel a greater expectation to be tougher, to be the provider of their family. Country men are constantly told they are tough and resilient … by politicians, by the media. What if you aren’t resilient? It’s okay of you’re not. Rural men take failure really to heart. The shame is massive.”

One of the most difficult aspects of the COVID-19 pandemic had been the enforced isolation and lack of contact with others. “Not being able to shake hands, that is a massive way they are able to connect,” said Mary, who wrote a poem describing the importance of the handshake to blokes in country Australia.

The power of poetry returned later in the day, when John Patterson from Freemason’s Victoria, recited Rain from Nowhere by Murray Hartin , a technique he has used when addressing men from farming groups to boardrooms, triggering a cathartic reaction among his audience. “When you create the right environment, blokes will come and talk to you and tell you their story,” he said.

It was an observation that returned like a golden sunset over four sessions throughout the day. 

Go where men are, talk their language.

Communication is key, said dairy farmer Warren Davies, also known as The Unbreakable Farmer. “My story wasn’t a unique story,” he began. “When I was going through my darkest times I believed I was the only person going through it. “Communication is key. When I was struggling and at my lowest point, I wasn’t communicating with the people I loved.”

John Harper, shearer and founder of Mate Helping Mate, put it plainly.

“I’m an ordinary bloke. I was hard to reach,” he said, referring to his involvement with Men’s Health Connected.

“How did they get me here? AMHF reached out to me. It’s about reaching out.”

John’s method of reaching out is to invite groups of men to social occasions, where they can help other men who are doing it tough. There are no formal ‘service providers’. If he’s taking a busload of blokes to a gathering, he will sit them next to psychologists.

“Health by stealth. I get ‘em out, any pretence.” The biggest challenge presented by COVID-19 was isolation.

“Drought, floods fire don’t worry us bastards. That’s what we sign up for,” he said.

“But when we have a disease like COVID, the recommendation is to isolate and separate so the rest don’t catch it.”

“It’s the opposite strategy in mental health, we need to come together and support.”

Tim Saal, Manager, Rural and Remote Programs, Rural and Remote Mental Health, spoke of putting “the culture back in agriculture.”

“The strength of rural communities is that we come together in adversity. When you look at the COVID response … we have to isolate.

“We need things like this summit, where we can all come together and have a chat, get a bit of structure and move forward together.”

On a practical level, Tim recommended that people switch off from reading the news.

“The media cycle is so severe and so negative. We’ve got to give ourselves time to recharge our batteries and switch off.” Aussie farmers, he stated, produced the highest product under the harshest conditions, and that the mental and physical health of rural workers was imperative to protecting the country’s best asset: its people.

“We need to recognise that. Get out into rural communities, get friends to come and see rural communities, spend a night in the pub, spend some money there.”

Going where men are: Regional Men's Health Initiative share their modus operandi at the Men's Health Connected Online Summit.

Owen Connolly a mental health nurse practitioner working in Gippsland, Victoria, also said it was important to go where men are.

“If they just want to see us when they are in town, they can do that. We don’t set it up so it’s hard and a rigid way of operating. If people just want to stop and talk we’ll do that and go for a walk.

“The key thing is just talking with people, just engaging. Doing the simple things.”

John Clark, who grew up in Yea, Victoria, and now works with Rural Alive and Well Tasmania, shared his own personal battle with severe depression as he approached 40.  “I didn’t have anyone stigmatise me when I was diagnosed with depression and anxiety, I stigmatised myself. I thought this only happened to unfortunate people, homeless people, people with trauma issues.

“Self-stigma is really powerful, one of the things that produces shame.”

John said men could be taught coping strategies, and learn to challenge long-held ‘traditional’ male norms around being strong, stoic and silent.

“The more men align themselves with traditional male gender norms, the worse off they are,” he said, adding that when men are feeling intense pain, it often manifests as anger.

“I was angry to the point of being abusive. Underneath there was a whole world of hurt and pain. This is true of all males particularly rural males.”

Both Adrian Payne from Men's Health Education Rotary Van, and Terry Melrose and Owen Catto (Regional Men’s Health Initiative), underlined the importance of going where men are and talking their language. Simple worked best. A sign that reminded blokes how to avoid dying in the back paddock, a chart that divided mental health into green, orange and red zones. “We’ve gotta put an arm on their shoulder and say, mate, we’re all in it. You’re not on your own.”


The Men’s Health Connected Summit continues on Friday 5 June with a focus on older men. Who is advocating for blokes over 65?

What is the impact of COVID-19 on older men? What’s working for older men?

Register here

Saturday’s session looks at the Men’s Mental Health Movement,  and the explosion of grassroots projects setting up in communities all over Australia.

Register here


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