Joe, 55, grew up on the family farm on the Yorke Peninsula and farming is all he knows. When his parents died, he became the fourth generation to farm. Joe diversified his crops by growing wheat, barely and lupins because the climate changes so much. He also keeps sheep for meat production. Joe married a local woman, Jessica, 20 years ago and they have two children. Pete, 18, is studying an agricultural degree at the Waite Campus of the University of Adelaide and lives in Adelaide. Sarah, 14, attends a local high school and lives with her parents.
Joe is one of those people you least expect to be struggling. As Joe says, ‘I’m probably one of those sort of loud, life of the party sort of people.’ At first, Joe didn’t understand why he was feeling terrible. He would have these episodes for weeks where he would be in ‘a dark space’ and ‘wasn’t enjoying anything.’ No one knew what was going on because he didn’t talk to anyone. Jessica knew something was wrong but felt helpless. When he told his mates, some of them were surprised and laughed because he’s just not the sort of bloke to get depressed. But things built up and got worse. When the drought came six years ago, the ‘anxiety levels would get really high.’ He would often be driving the tractor in the middle of the paddock, crying to himself. ‘Things that normally roll off my back pretty well…[would] set me off…I end[ed] up blowing up over something that wasn’t really…warranted.’ As he remembers, ‘I just had a lot of trouble sleeping,’ because the family ‘owe[s] seven hundred and fifty thousand,’ which ‘doesn’t sound as much, but it’s equivalent of about two million now.’ At night, I was just having panic attacks and…anxiety attacks and all that sort of stuff.’
It took a while for Joe to get help. Finally, he had ‘a total breakdown.’ ‘I went to the GPs office and just started crying to him, and he said I think you’re pretty depressed mate.’ He listened, really listened. For the first time, Joe was able to say he wanted to run away from it all. He now realises that depression and anxiety are not something you can fix on your own. ‘You have to get professional help even when you don’t want to because you are working 14 to 16 hours a day without anyone else around.’ After he started taking anti-depressants and got more counselling, Joe started to open up to Jessica a lot more. They would go on long drives to take their minds off things. Joe finds listening to different podcasts ‘is great, you get on someone’s conversation like long format conversation and you just listen…to 3 or 4 hours of podcasts and music a day.’ This helps his motivation when being isolated gets tough. Joe has realised he wants to keep going because he loves his life. And he wants ‘to hand [the family farm] on to the next generation in as good or better condition.’
SOS Yorkes and the National Enterprise for Rural Community Wellbeing have been working together to help local farmers. The organisations have co-designed a series of stories addressing some of the issues, taken from over 50 interviews with farmers from across South Australia, New South Wales and Victoria.
Recurring themes include recognising distress and anxiety; economic, weather and other downturns and distress; marital stress and needing to talk to someone; help seeking and the road to recovery.
This is the first article in the five-month long project.