Tough times prompt mental health first aid strategy

<< Back to News & Media
Mental Health First Aid Australia Green Flower Star Logo

Devastating bushfires, once-in-a-lifetime droughts, floods, trade wars and a global pandemic – 2020 has had it all, and it has been a lot to deal with for even the most resilient among us.

AWN Managing Director John Colley was quick to recognise this and decided to help staff and clients cope in the face of all these challenges, which is where Harry Petropoulos comes in.

As AWN’s General Manager People and Culture, Harry said he travelled around the network and witnessed first-hand the distress experienced by farmers, particularly those living through two and three years of devastating droughts.

AWN Tough times prompt mental health first aid strategy Harry Petropoulos, General Manager People and Culture

Harry Petropoulos, General Manager People and Culture

“Farming is considered one of the 10 most stressful occupations in the world, and if you add the drought to that, everything turns pear-shaped very quickly,’’ he said. “I felt it was a very challenging scenario, and it soon became clear to me that one person alone wasn’t going to be able to intervene effectively, but many people trained in mental health could make a tangible difference.’’

So, an idea was born to train as many people as possible in mental health first aid – especially wool specialists and livestock reps who were constantly coming face-to-face with clients.


“Part of AWN’s board’s strategy since late last year has been to focus on mental health and we’ve decided to make the Mental Health First Aid program the cornerstone of our Mental Health and Well Being strategy.’


Harry said clients trust their reps, and reps are in an excellent position to notice subtle behaviour changes that may signal the presence of mental health problems.

“The program gives average Aussies the skills and confidence to ask RUOK and to know what to do and say if the answer is ‘no’,’’ he said.

“Part of AWN’s board’s strategy since late last year has been to focus on mental health, and we’ve decided to make the Mental Health First Aid program the cornerstone of our Mental Health and Well Being strategy.’’

The mental health first aid course would typically be delivered face-to-face: however, COVID made that difficult, so an online course was developed. Participants were now able to work at their own pace through self-learning, followed by two days of Zoom meetings to ensure everyone is across the content and can sit and pass an exam and gain their certificate.

“We have 13 members of staff from all walks of life and sectors of the business who have completed the course. AWN’s Chair, Brendon Lunney, is one of those, which is a testament to the importance the company is placing on mental health and wellbeing. I have now extended an invitation to all AWN staff who would like to complete the course as we would like to have at least one person on each site to have completed the training to enable them to assist colleagues and clients alike. This course doesn’t make them a counsellor. Still, it does give them the confidence to initiate a mental health conversation and refer someone on to professional help if deemed necessary,’’ Harry said.

“Our wool reps consider their clients their friends and vice versa, and it is distressing for them to see others going through such difficult times. There are areas such as Longreach in Queensland and Lightning Ridge in NSW which are still doing it tough, and we need to be there to help where we can.’’ AWN is also considering ways of making training available to some of those affected communities.

Horsham-based Graeme Telfer was keen to complete the course and said it gave him a greater understanding of mental health issues.

“You just never know what clients, colleagues or family may be going through, and this may help me point them in the right direction,’’ he said.

“We are often a sounding board for our clients where we sit down and have a chat, and some clients may open up. This course helps me understand what they are feeling and why. If they are going through difficult times, we can try and talk them through their options and be aware.’’

Tasmania’s Brett Cox said the course offered a common-sense approach to alerting clients or colleagues who may be struggling.

“This has been a great initiative to give us the tools to be aware and to be able to suggest where help is available.’’
Group Finance Manager Ruby Bradi agreed, saying the course provided an amazing opportunity to upskill and understand some of the issues farmers face.

Readers seeking support can contact

Lifeline 13 11 14
Beyond Blue 1300 22 4636
Suicide Call Back Service 1300 659 467

Get in touch with an AWN wool or livestock specialist

Talk to one of our experienced wool or livestock professionals for more information.