Tactics for battling with the Black Dog

It's time for next-level engagement with mental health

Opinion
Our identity, our love of the land will directly correlate with our experiences of mental illness. Image: 'Drought', oil-on-canvas by Susan McConnel

Our identity, our love of the land will directly correlate with our experiences of mental illness. Image: 'Drought', oil-on-canvas by Susan McConnel

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Laments from Australia's great poets reveals a battle in the bush that has been going on since the first ships arrived, writes Caitlin McConnel.

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Australians' trials with mental illness in the bush have been documented for generations, despite reluctance to engage in meaningful discussion of the topic.

It is only now some of our most iconic laments can be interpreted as more than just descriptions of life on the land.

With increased awareness and resources, breathtaking Australian poetry - penned over a century ago - can arguably provide an insight into the direct correlation between life in the bush and its impact on symptoms associated with mental illness.

"Who now shall wear the cheerful face, in time when things are blackest. And who shall whistle round the place, When Fortune frowns her blackest". - Andy's Gone with Cattle (1888), Henry Lawson.

"The drought is down on field and flock, the river-bed is dry . . . In dull despair the days go by, with never hope of change". - With the Cattle (1896), Banjo Paterson.

September and October are key months for promoting mental health and wellness, particularly in rural and regional areas. However I've noticed a challenge to the very questions we're told to ask.

"RU OK?" or "Are you bogged, mate?" are critical questions.

While there is no denying these questions should be asked, someone recently suggested they invite only a 'yes' or 'no' answer.

Yet the very reason mental health and wellness initiatives exist is to start a conversation. Why not instead ask open-ended questions?

Why not: "I see you've got a lot on your plate at the moment, is there anything you're particularly worried about?"

Or: "I'm concerned you've been running on fumes for a while mate, is there anything in particular that's keeping your wheels from turning?"

Persistence is key.

Starting a conversation about mental health and wellness is difficult, but harder for the person you're approaching.

You'll likely fail to start a conversation, perhaps often.

Should people talk, don't tell them what to do.

Encourage engagement with resources online, via phone or medical professionals; and significantly, offer support to navigate those options.

Just as Lawson and Paterson opined over a century ago, it is clear our identity, our love of the land will directly correlate with our experiences of mental illness.

Despite the penchant for fortitude that comes with being a person in the bush, the Black Dog has been with me for over half my life.

Conversations have failed at times, but just knowing someone was there was sometimes all the support I've needed.

I encourage everyone to check in on those around you often and also ask yourself the hard questions - there is great courage in admitting when you're just 'running on fumes'.

  • Caitlin McConnel is an agribusiness lawyer, a sixth-generation grazier, a mental health first aider and a non-executive director of the Future Farmers Network.

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