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Mental health campaign targets farmers at saleyards 'where they're comfortable'

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For 17-year-old Grace Purtle, the local saleyards have been a regular fixture of life.  

They're where the teenager, from Manilla in northern New South Wales, has seen the good times, the bad times and everything in between.

There have been good years, like 2021, where the pastures are green, sheep and cattle are making record prices, and everyone's smiling beneath their broad-brimmed hats. 

But she has also seen the desperate toll drought has taken on her family, community and friends — the despair etched on their faces as they walked through the saleyard gates.

It was watching those smiles fade away during the drought that made Ms Purtle realise she wanted to be an advocate for mental health, not just at the saleyards but also among her peers. 

Ms Purtle has been working with the Tamworth Livestock Selling Agents Association (TLSSA) and the Rural Adversity Mental Health Program (RAMHP) on their local initiative to get more conversations flowing among farmers.

"If I can be involved in promoting the better health of other people and …  people know I'm open for a conversation to help them out, I feel like it helps to break the stigma for a lot of young people that it's not weak to speak."

Farmer opens up about struggle

The mental health campaign from the TLSAA and RAMHP has been running for a few months, using social media to further the reach of videos featuring the stories of local farmers and agents who have struggled with their mental health.

Walcha farmer and livestock agent Gary Olrich is among those who have shared their stories in the hope of helping others.

A man in a blue coat stands in front of a pen of sheep
Walcha farmer and livestock agent Gary Olrich has shared his struggles with mental health to help others.(ABC New England: Lara Webster)

Mr Olrich recovered from his first bout of depression, but nearly two decades later, around 2018, drought began to take a toll on his life.

"From a financial point of view it was really, really difficult for us to battle through that, so the same thing happened again," Mr Olrich said.

"Twelve or 18 months on medication and a lot of reprogramming my brain … and then it rained at the start of 2020 which helped solve a lot of our financial problems."

Tools to talk and cope

TLSAA executive and marketing officer Michelle Mawhinney is a driving force behind the saleyard mental health social media campaign.

As well as sharing the videos of personal stories to the association's Facebook page, the campaign also provides information around suicide prevention, stress management and accessing local services.

A woman in a blue jacket stands beside a steel rail
Michelle Mawhinney believes the program is making a difference.(ABC New England: Lara Webster)

"The idea developed because our association has 10 different agencies in it, so lots of different people working for them coming into contact with lots of different people," Ms Mawhinney said.

Because of those odds, Ms Mawhinney wanted local agents to be equipped to deal with potentially challenging conversations, and know where to direct people who were struggling.

She said it was also important agents themselves knew where to get help and that they could talk to someone too. 

"We also had a few situations last year where there were a few incidents of people suffering from depression and other issues with clients that were very close to home in terms of mental health, so that was what really spurred us on to raise awareness," she said.

Saleyards more than just markets

As well as a trading centre, saleyards can be a place for farmers to catch up with friends and socialise.

Tamworth's Kate Arndell, from the Rural Adversity Mental Health Program, has been working with the agents association. 

A woman in a pink shirt sits on grass
Kate Arndell says saleyards are an important part of the social fabric of farmers' lives, and a good place to start conversations.(ABC New England: Lara Webster)

Ms Arndell said saleyards could be exactly the right place to start the conversation about mental health, especially with rural men.

"We need to access that target market at a place where they are comfortable and they already are," Ms Arndell said.

"There might not be any specific talk about mental health issues, but it is that connection and sometimes that might be the only time that that group of people get off the property." 


Source: ABC

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