AWN Empowers Team Members and Communities with Mental Health Strategies

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Farming can be a highly stressful occupation. Often portrayed as mentally tough and stoic, rural and remote communities are often subject to environmental adversities such as bushfires, floods and drought, which are often associated with economic and social hardship. This often contributes to social fragmentation and mental ill health.

In years gone by, discussions around mental health and, in particular, mental ill-health were largely avoided and, in some cases, were considered taboo subjects. This was particularly the case in rural and remote regions of Australia.

These days, there’s much discussion in the media and across corporate Australia about mental health and wellbeing. I think that’s a good thing.

When you think about it, mental health affects how we think, feel, and act. It also helps determine how we handle stress, relate to others, and make healthy choices. Mental health is vital at every stage of life, from childhood and adolescence to adulthood. It’s an integral component of health and wellbeing that underpins our individual and collective abilities to make decisions, build relationships and shape our world.

Despite recent increased investment in mental health services from state and federal governments, one in two Australians will face mental ill-health at some point in their lives, and more than 3,000 Australians die by suicide each year. The onset of mental illness is typically around mid-to-late adolescence. Early intervention is key. Sadly, in 2023, suicide remains the biggest killer of our kids.

We know that the disparities and problems with mental health service provision in rural and remote Australia often mean our communities are at a significant disadvantage relative to metropolitan populations when accessing mental health services. Lack of access to services may be further compounded by poor mental health literacy and self-recognition of illness.

The mental health of our communities undoubtedly took a battering during the last drought. As many would attest, being a farmer is more than just a job – it is a passion intimately intertwined with our self-identity.

Leveraging the key learnings from the last drought, AWN continues to roll out a version of a Peer Support training program known as Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) across all its regions and across all three business streams – wool, livestock, and real estate.

Findings from internationally recognised specialist research institutions such as the Centre for Rural & Remote Mental Health (Orange NSW) and our anecdotal evidence reflect the toll from vicarious trauma experienced by people servicing the sector. I recall the anguish expressed by many of our field staff as they struggled to find ways to support their clients.

Peer support is a valuable addition to traditional professional support services, particularly in regional and remote areas where access to professional services can be challenging.

A peer support program can contribute to a psychologically safe workplace, building a resilient team that understand and support each other. A peer offers unique insight as someone who may have lived experiences of either mental illness and recovery or knowledge of the difficulties of the pressures a colleague or a client may be under. These insights allow them to understand, support, and, above all, model a sense of hope in ways not always achievable through traditional therapeutic means.

Peer support programs aren’t exclusively for those who are seriously ill or have a diagnosis of a mental illness. If someone is struggling with seasonal conditions, relationships, or everyday stressors, a peer supporter can help them find the resources to manage their overall well-being.

To date, 68 AWN employees, including Board members and our Managing Director John Colley, have been certified by Australia’s flagship Peer Support Program – Mental Health First Aid. This program was developed by Australian not-for-profit, Mental Health First Aid Australia and has trained over four million people worldwide, including one million Australians.

The MHFA course is a one-and-a-half-day program offered to all AWN employees. It can be delivered face-to-face in a classroom setting or as has been our preference, it can be delivered online via a combination of self-paced e-Learning modules supplemented by five hours of Zoom / Teams video participation.

Individuals complete a short exam to become accredited Mental Health First Aiders (MHFA) and internal peer supporters. Topics covered within the training include depression, anxiety, psychotic illness, substance use disorders, multiple crisis scenarios such as suicide, panic attacks, critical incident management, and aggressive behaviours.

There are several other high-quality, nuanced programs specifically catering to farming sectors, including the online program ifarmwell (www.ifarmwell.com.au) and the Rural Adversity Mental Health Program (RAMHP). The Tamworth Livestock Selling Agents Association recently teamed up with RAMHP to create an online mental health stigma reduction campaign, which will also be promoted at stockyard sales.

Black Dog Institute, GROW, SANE, and Lifeline also run Peer Support Programs.

The reason AWN has adopted the MHFA program is:

  • Its framework is evidence-based,
  • MHFA has been proven effective at increasing knowledge regarding mental health, increasing someone’s confidence and intention to help, and reducing the stigma towards mental illness,
  • With more than a thousand certified MHFA Instructors deployed across Australia, the program is easily scalable.

Mental Health First Aid Australia also provide a number of course variants to meet the needs of various cohorts, including Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander adults (and a separate program dedicated to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander youth), older Australians, and teens.

The version of the course that AWN uses is specifically attuned to corporate settings, but there is also a version designed for Communities.

The community version of the program that AWN is seeking progressively to roll out has been developed to build support networks that strengthen against the mental health impact of future droughts. We believe that the provision of mental health services to Rural and Remote parts of the country could be strengthened through ‘grow-your-own’ and ‘skills escalation’ strategies for existing rural residents such as training community members as peer support. To this end, AWN now seeks to go one step further in its efforts to support our clients and communities by providing Mental Health First Aid training directly.

Just as employees are in a prime position to observe and notice changes in their peer’s behaviour, moods and thoughts, client-facing employees who regularly call on and interact with clients are also in a position to detect these changes. Our Wool and Livestock Specialists are often in a position to be able to detect changes in their client’s behaviour, thoughts, and appearance that may be indicative of underlying physical and/or mental ill health. While not trained as counsellors, our growing team of certified Mental Health First Aiders know the signs to look out for, can connect clients with the appropriate professional support services and are in a position to ‘be there’ for them through their recovery process. The MHFA training will equip clients with the knowledge and skills to recognise the signs and symptoms of mental health problems and to confidently provide the correct referral information and support to someone who may be developing a mental health problem or experiencing a mental health crisis.

Jenny Hedges, a grazier from near Yass, and Michelle Ridley, a grazier from Goulburn have already completed the program with Annalise Merriman, a grazier from Boorowa enrolled in the November intake.

Jenny Hedges said that she was glad she completed the course and was surprised with how much she learnt.

“In the country, with blokes in particular, it is hard to get them to talk about their feelings. This training offers the skills to know how to pave the way without upsetting someone. In this male-dominated industry, there is such a ‘she’ll be right mate, it’s my problem’ attitude and I now feel I have the skills to encourage these people to seek help,” Jenny said.

“This course gave me the tools and ways of getting around a touchy subject like suicide. A lot of people don’t really want to ask about these things in case they say the wrong thing.”

AWN has set off on an ambitious mission to try and encourage as many people in rural communities as possible to undertake this training so that they can look out for their mates as harder times approach.

It is envisaged that once participating farmers complete the training, these regional farming cells will regularly check in with participating members regarding their mental health status.

Once operational, the focus of these network cells can be expanded beyond just mental health and wellbeing, and these cells can be used as an initiative exchange platform where farming best practices can be discussed and shared at a local/regional level.

Any farmers interested in being part of this program are encouraged to contact their local AWN specialist.


Harry Petropoulos
General Manager – People & Culture


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