RURAL DILEMMA: Graeme Sudholz, who was a grain grower for 30 years, believes the “stoic mindset” that gets farmers through tough times can also work against getting help when they aren’t coping emotionally.
RURAL DILEMMA: Graeme Sudholz, who was a grain grower for 30 years, believes the “stoic mindset” that gets farmers through tough times can also work against getting help when they aren’t coping emotionally. Suze Mcleod

Farmers are tough, but overcoming depression is tougher...

FOR 30 years Graeme Sudholz was a wheat and sheep farmer. It was a lifestyle he loved with work challenges that kept his days interesting ... until he fell into a darkness he "couldn't climb out of".

This week he shared his battle with depression in an attempt to offer hope and insight to others facing the same struggle in the bush.

Graeme had grown up in the rural sector, made the choice to work in the bush, married and had three children, built a successful grain business and then battled to understand what he was doing wrong "to have all this bad luck" when it splintered apart.

He believes depression contributed to much of the heartbreak: his marriage ending, his business struggle (he sold the family farm and then lost money in an earth moving venture) and the acute loss of his sense of self.

"I think the worst part of depression for me was not understanding what was happening," Graeme explained.

"I had everything but still had huge pools of darkness that I would fall into and couldn't climb out of.

"It felt like I was drowning.

"This impacted on my quality of life, my family and my business.

"The personal cost to myself and those around me is impossible to estimate, but is significant.

"I was going through life at full throttle but going backwards.

"I missed out on so much in my life as a result of not getting help."

But he admits during his years in farming he did attempt to get help and learn more about himself.

"Looking back, I feel sad I couldn't get the support I needed; both because I didn't know what I wanted but also there was very little available that really understood the issues facing rural farming families in general."

He believes the determination and stoic mindset that keeps farming families going in an often unforgiving environment can work against an individual struggling emotionally.

"Farming is challenging mostly because of the inability to separate the business life from the personal life," Graeme explained.

"The identity of the individual or even the entire family is seen as 'a farmer' and, if the farm is successful, the individual self esteem is high.

"If things are tough ... it's challenging when business success is measured in seasonal rainfall."

He said there was a "huge stigma" attached with admitting you were not coping.

"To survive in (agriculture) ... in this mostly unforgiving environment requires mental toughness and determination," Graeme said.

"In traditional farming families, generally there is little understanding of the emotional strain that is carried behind the scenes."

So he said at the time he struggled to admit - even to himself - that he needed help.

When he finally approached family for support, he was met with a "get over it" attitude.

From there he said shame basically stopped him getting help openly, though he did find himself calling Lifeline on several occasions.

"I think that saved my life.

"I also had good friends, who definitely kept me from going over the edge.

"Apart from that, it was a very difficult time for me, as I did not have any understanding of what was happening or how to do it."

He said one of the major challenges of depression was the lack of understanding: sufferers look okay, but "just acted" a bit different.

However he doesn't believe those in agriculture are more susceptible to mental illness than the general population.

"They just have more challenges and also can hide it better perhaps."

Graeme's first-hand experience with depression prompted him into a series of workshops and then into a role offering support for rural people facing similar struggles.

Today he and his partner, Annette, who is also an ex-farmer, offer confidential support for men and women and relationships in rural areas through their Oztantra organisation.

"I missed out on so much by not getting help.

"This is why I do what I do now, to give something back.

"Both Annette and I are ex-farmers, who have been through the divorce grinder and understand intimately the importance of support."

He said modern technology, mobile phones, Skype, webinars and emails had made getting genuine support and help more easily accessible for those struggling with depression in the bush.

His advice to those struggling with a "darkness that they can't climb out of" is simple: get help now.

 If you need more information or advice about depression call Lifeline 13 11 14 or the Suicide Call Back Service on 1300 659 467.

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