The recent Norco-commissioned National Farmers’ Federation report on National Farmer Wellbeing 2023 made me think about my own journey as a psychologist in rural Australia over the past 17 years.
And, particularly, my interactions with farmers.
My husband is a farmer, so too is my father and my father-in-law and all four of my brothers-in-law. My brother works as an agricultural pilot. Both of my grandfathers were farmers; most of my friends are either farmers or married to farmers or someone who works in agriculture.
Pretty much all of my community are either farmers or support farmers in some way in their jobs and businesses.
So, I reckon I know a thing or two about what makes a farmer of the male variety tick!
I don’t know if some of those in my circle have experienced mental health issues … actually, the truth is – I do know.
But I can’t say because they would never forgive me. Because being a man in rural Australia – as you may know – and saying you have a mental health issue is not cool. It’s not tough. It’s not masculine. You just don’t do it, if you can avoid it.
This photo is of a group of men, farmers and those who work in agriculture, who gathered together in a little town (population 300, give or take) neighbouring my own.
During the drought I was asked to join them at 6am for a weekly breakfast connection time to discuss mental health.
To be honest, I was sick to the stomach with worry about doing it.
I felt very anxious and panicky before the morning.
I got up at 5am to drive to the little town in the freezing cold to chat with a group of farmers I didn’t know, about something as personal as their mental health – a topic I had grown up knowing rural males simply don’t talk about.
I thought I would get a frosty reception to say the least. I thought they would be embarrassed to be seen standing there, in a public park, talking to a “head doctor” or a “shrink”, a … psychologist!
A woman, speaking to men, about their mental health. In public. In front of their mates.
Totally uncool. Totally not okay.
Why did I say ‘yes’? Because I knew it was a ‘good cause’ and I had to try.
So, I arrived. And the guys were asked to gather around.
They reservedly obliged, more out of old-fashioned gentlemanly politeness than any sort of desire to hear what I had to say.
I felt like the only rabbit at a meeting of foxes. My nose twitched. My body shook.
The men stood about 20 metres from me in a very wide arc, not wanting to get psychologist germs.
Not wanting to look too interested in what I was saying.
They listened politely. They did the little activity I asked them to do without questioning or contributing any negative comments.
I could feel their apprehension. Their fear of being caught out. Of being seen as the THE ONE… the one among them who had ‘IT’ - ‘IT’ being a mental health issue.
And, then I finished. I held my breath. Wondering if they would throw rotten tomatoes or, worse still, the heavy pumpkins that grew nearby and request that I get back in my car and not come back next week.
But they didn’t. They were beautiful.
One very brave soul spoke first. He spoke of his feelings of desperation and loneliness in a dark world of depression. Of standing in a paddock, by himself, sobbing. Of not being able to tell anyone, not being able to speak to anyone. Of having to ‘get it all out’ before going home to his wife and kids.
They came up to me and spoke to me with such softness and openness… it changed my whole outlook on rural men. These were real, live people with hearts and red blood pumping through their veins.
They said ‘thank you’. They told me their stories. They started to talk about what was going on in their hearts and minds.
I have to be honest. Until that point, I had avoided taking men on as patients in my psychology practice.
I felt that I didn’t have the depth of understanding to work with them and I thought they were well… scary.
To me, men were a closed and harsh bunch who don’t talk about their feelings without being gruff, dismissive or rude. I even doubted that they really had feelings…?
Okay, it wasn’t that bad. But it was close!
But this group of guys changed my perspective and made me look deeper into the lives of the rural male as a species.
And, over the years, I have come up with a few theories of my own about their mental health and why, as the Norco/NFF report found, farmers aren’t faring well mentally.
I think two things are going wrong in particular – and they are things we can fix if we try.
The first is what I have already mentioned – the fact that men are very often socialised from a young age to not discuss their feelings or ask for help.
They are very often trapped in ‘the man box’ - a term that describes all of the behaviours and thinking patterns that men have to adhere to in order for society to view them as ‘real men’.
These behaviours include being self-reliant and not asking for help in case they are seen as weak; shouldering the full responsibility of being the main breadwinner for the family; using aggression or violence to solve problems, as a few examples.
If adhered to – and rural men are ‘real men’ – these stereotypes are, of course, recipes for poor mental health.
The second reason for poor farmer mental health is, I think that farmers, as well as people who live in rural Australia, are feeling threatened, misunderstood and alienated from the rest of the country.
Whenever we turn on the news, listen to our leaders, the media and small interest groups, fingers are pointed at us as the exacerbators of all sorts of social problems and issues, from climate change to animal welfare and First Nation’s people’s woes.
Farming requires a person to engage in hard physical work while maintaining disciplined vigilance over personal safety and the safety of staff, in an environment that is incredibly unpredictable and, despite best efforts, can deliver soul-crushing results.
Farmers work for long hours, often through weekends, because not only is there the physical aspect of production; but there is also the mountain of administration that is normally associated with running any complex, high-risk business.
Yes, they choose to do it. But, the point I am making is that farmers and agricultural support industry workers are often physically and mentally exhausted.
Too exhausted to defend themselves against the unfair accusations that are increasingly being levelled at them.
Despite the massive and important contribution they are making to the national economy; despite the fact that without them, there would be no opportunity for fresh, high-quality food on our tables; and despite the fact that most Australian farmers are the most patriotic, loyal bunch of bastards who would fight to the death defending their country that you could ever meet – public and political support for them is diminishing.
In short, Australians are not supporting their farmers and farmers’ mental health is collapsing under the heavy artillery fire of protest groups, political bandwagons and plain old-fashioned ignorance.
It seems that each new policy that is put up in our parliaments of late takes a chunk out of the lives and livelihoods of farmers, a minority group with very little voice.
When you have to spend any spare minute you have fighting your own country men and women, your media, your elected leaders, to HEAR you, to SEE you and to tell the truth about you and your life and your work and your ethics, then yes – it is bloody depressing.
From cotton, to pork and live export beef and sheep, we in agriculture have become easy fodder for quick TV ratings, and an easy target for a political buck pass.
Overseas, nations have huge respect for, and loyalty to, their farmers.
While on an agricultural trip to Germany and France a few years ago, I asked the locals why they so revered their farmers. The response was, because they have in their collective memory, the dreadful experience of almost starving to death during the two World Wars. Seared into the population’s memory is the fact that the only thing that stood between them and a slow horrible death from starvation were their farmers.
Australians, if you care about your farmers; if you see that they have an important role to play in sustaining your country and your free and healthy way of life, then you need to become savvier about what you are being told.
You need to ask yourself – could there be another side to this story? Where do I get my meat, vegetables, clothing from? Why would farmers not take care of the very natural resources that give them their income, their home, their identity and way of life?
Should I support my fellow farmers more? Do I want high quality produce or am I happy to put up with inferior imports that add to greenhouse gas emissions, microplastics in the ocean and human rights issues?
Put simply, for the good of their mental health, Australian farmers cannot keep operating in an environment of unchecked hostility and ignorance.
By killing off the Australian farmer, your friend, your mate, the person who would literally keep you alive through a world war if need be – you will be contributing to the problems of the world that you have voted against!
It’s all connected and yet so many of you do not – will not – bother to see the connection.
It is very frustrating.
And that is a pretty obvious second reason why I think your Australian farmer might be depressed.
Goondiwindi-based psychologist Chantal Corish’s journey over the past nearly two decades has been one of deep insight into the lives of the people who make up the bush, and the trials and tribulations they experience from cradle to grave. A mother of three girls, and a farmer’s wife, she has been able to provide deep empathy and care to her clients, always with the goal of making them feel truly seen and heard. For more information, visit @theruralpsychologist on Instagram.