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New Zealand is in what can only be called a mental health crisis. Around 500 New Zealanders per year die by suicide, and we have some of the highest youth suicide rates in the OECD. The statistics are even worse in the rural demographic, where suicide rates are 20–50 per cent higher than in urban areas. The pressures of agriculture, coupled with the typical stoic, silent culture that permeates rural New Zealand can mean that those who are struggling often find it difficult to seek help, or to talk about their private battles. Geographical isolation can also be a factor, with some farm workers employed on remote high-country stations for months at a time with limited off-farm contact.

In December 2017, 21-year-old North Otago farm worker Will Gregory tragically ended his life, leaving his family, friends and girlfriend Elle Perriam devastated. Following Will’s death, Elle, a Lincoln University student, looked for a way to create positive change in the rural mental health sector, and the idea for the ‘Will to Live Speak Up Tour’ was born. Elle, with the help of her sister Sarah, launched the tour at the Hunterville Huntaway Festival in October 2018, with Will’s black Huntaway Jess as mascot.

With 16 ‘Speak Up’ events held in small towns across New Zealand, Elle set up a crowdfunding campaign on PledgeMe, initially raising an impressive $18,000 to fund the tour, with sponsors like Allflex also stepping up to volunteer support. ‘We didn’t approach any sponsors and we didn’t approach the government,’ Elle says. ‘It’s all been crowdfunded – it’s really community driven.’

Each event had speakers: local ‘ambassadors’ – farmers who have struggled with mental health, and rural psychologists, as well as dinner and drinks, and a chance to socialise and connect. Farmers were encouraged to bring their working dogs, and a moment of silence was held for all of those whose lives have been lost to suicide. That silence was then broken by Jess, who ‘Speaks Up’ and started barking, and was then joined by the other dogs who began barking in unison.

The Speak Up is emotional and symbolic, with Jess being a ‘black dog’, a term often used to describe depression, and by ‘Speaking Up’, just like the working dogs barking with Jess, it encourages those struggling with mental health to do the same. ‘I feel like telling your story and being relatable is just as important as someone telling you how to get better,’ Elle says. ‘There’s so much to learn from someone that’s been through it. So that’s why at each event, I’ve spoken, telling my experience. Then a psychologist talked about the psychology of it all and what happens in the brain, because I know when your head’s all spinning, and when someone says, “This is human biology, this is why you’re thinking that way”, it makes it feel a lot less weird.’

Raised on a beef property owned and run by Elle’s mother in Haast, and having worked on various properties in New Zealand and Australia, Elle has a good understanding of rural communities, and the importance of establishing mental health initiatives that are relatable and appealing to farmers. ‘I think events are the best way to go, and to make them “farmer attractive”. That’s why I put on a live band and an auction, a meal and a beer and why I got the stock agents there. Because you’re not going to get farmers to come listen to a mental health lecture in town, are you? So we went to their pubs. Then boom! Their whole life’s changed because they listen to something that, you know, triggered something in their head.’

In the future, Elle would like to also focus on farm managers, and the important role they have in their workers’ physical and mental wellbeing. ‘If you were in that team of four and you don’t get along with anyone and you’re stuck on a station for an eight-month contract, then it seems very, very long, and lonely and hard,’ Elle says, ‘especially in some of those gullies where you don’t really see anyone else. That’s why managers are so important.’

With the rural health sector being already severely under-resourced, and the Rural Health Alliance being forced into hibernation earlier this year following a rejection by the government for core funding at a time when statistics paint a very grim and alarming picture, grass roots initiatives like the ‘Will to Live’ campaign are vital and could quite possibly even save lives. ‘No one should ever go through the nightmare that we went through,’ Elle says. ‘It didn’t just affect Will’s immediate family, his girlfriend, his friends. It affected everyone: the police, the whole town, hundreds and hundreds of people. I just don’t want that to happen again to anyone.’

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WORDS & IMAGES Claire Inkson