Sallie Jones turned a family tragedy into an opportunity to help others. At Farm World, she and 12 brave dairy farmers shared their personal experience with mental illness with the hope of saving lives. Casey Neill was there for all the tears – and laughter – as they laid everything bare.
Mike Bowen was kind, compassionate and bold. A man who could make anything happen.
He worked hard on his Lakes Entrance dairy farm to support his family.
“My big, strong, capable father took his life by suicide,” his daughter, Sallie Jones, said.
That day, 22 March 2016, changed Sallie’s life forever.
His death inspired her to co-found farmer-owned milk brand Gippsland Jersey with Jindivick farmer Steve Ronalds in mid-2016.
They launched in September and have steadily increased their customer base, to the point where they added a second farm in Poowong North to keep meet demand.
Sallie said Gippsland Jersey wasabout kindness, rural mental health and a fair price for farmers.
Thursday 12 April would have been his 69th birthday.
Sallie chose the day to launch a calendar in his honour at Farm World at Lardner Park.
“Stories like ours happen every day,” she said.
So she sought out 12 dairy farmers to share their mental health journeys.
She compiled them in a calendar with stunning photos from their farms, along with contact details for mental health support.
“Finding the right help when life’s throwing you a curly one can be hard,” she said.
“When I decided to do this project about eight weeks ago I didn’t now if it was possible.
“It’s important we share our lives with others and talk about our feelings.
“It lessens the load on ourselves.
“The stigma attached to mental health sucks.
“Step up and seek help if you are struggling with your brain health.
“Happy birthday, Dad. This one’s for you.”
PHN Gippsland CEO Marianne Shearer spoke at the launch.
She said the calendar was a great tool and thanked the farmers for their bravery, and their words of encouragement from their soul.
“That is going to reach people,” she said.
Sallie said a tanker drop would distribute 1400 calendars to dairy farmers across the Gippsland region.
“Our aim is to end the stigma and help save someone’s life,” she said.
She’ll never forget one Sunday afternoon when her dad walked into her kitchen and started to cry.
“It was the first time I’d seen my Dad cry,” she said.
He’d lost weight, lost enthusiasm, and was spending his days on the couch.
“It turns out these were the red flags of poor mental health,” Sallie said.
She and her family rallied around him, but his condition deteriorated.
He suffered psychosis and believed his house was bugged.
“Just when we thought we’d come through the worst of it, Dad took his own life,” Sallie said.
“He would never, ever have chosen to do this if he wasn’t completely broken and was suffering more hurt than we would ever know.
“We are left with no answers, just a ripple of sadness and heartbreak.”
Joe, from Warragul South, was among the farmers to feature in the calendar.
“Farmers lock things inside,” he said.
“It shouldn’t happen.
“Loneliness was the biggest factor for me on the farm.”
He’s a builder by trade and a perfectionist.
He said he’d put in his all to build a new back fence on the farm.
“At the end of the day, who cares?” he said.
“No one cares because no one’s going to see it.”
Negative thoughts like these started to take hold. Suicidal thoughts entered Joe’s mind.
“It might be the easy way out,” he said.
“The one thing I thought of was who’s going to find me? Do they deserve it?”
He also thought of his kids, waiting for him to come home.
Joe knew something was wrong, but “what would my mates think?” kept him from reaching out.
“That was my biggest fear, what people were going to say,” he said.
He was taking his frustrations out on his family. His wife Michelle was close to walking out the door.
She eventually convinced him to seek help and Joe saw his GP.
“Luckily for me, my GP’s my neighbour and we got on really well,” he said.
“I told him everything.
He’s now on medication, though still experiences the occasional downturn.
“The biggest thing that I did was take that first step,” he said.
“My marriage couldn’t be bloody better.
“Take that first step because, bloody hell, it’s a great feeling.”
Joe opened up to a long-time mate who, to his surprise, confessed he was in the same boat.
“You never know who needs help,” he said.
“Shit, it’s a bloody relief when you start talking about it.”
Royston, from Bete Belong, had the audience in stitches with his candid yarn.
But his humourous delivery didn’t take away from his story’s important message.
His mental health issues presented as physical pain “in my ball bag” and eventually in his chest.
He made several trips to the hospital emergency room, fearing he was having a heart attack.
“It helps to talk to mates about it rather than bottling it up,” he said.
Royston is having honest chats about his struggles with mates at his local footy club and beyond – and taking his doctor’s advice to reduce his stress levels.
“The doc said to have plenty of sex, plenty of holidays and to buy a fast motorbike,” he said.
“Dairy farmers can’t always go on holidays and buy motorbikes, but we can take some advice!”
Labertouche dairy farmer Michaela is the calendar’s December feature.
She said the biggest struggle in her mental health journey was the guilt she experienced as a mother.
Farm duties often call her away from parenting duties, but she seeks out other mums who understand her pain.
“Remember to get off the farm, seek out a friend, any small gesture can help another,” she said.