Hard work, not a miracle

Farmers have been doing it tough in Australia and the impact on their mental health has been profound, as the suicide statistics show.

For Queensland farmer, Phil, breaking point came eight months after he and his wife separated and he found himself alone on the farm and deeply depressed about the separation.

With no-one to talk to, one day last July Phil did something that would be a turning point in his life.

Phil’s suicide attempt, with a shotgun he used on the farm, put him in a coma for six weeks and he was in hospital with major head injuries for three months.

"It was something I did on impulse,” Phil says. “It wasn’t well thought out and not at all planned. I am extremely lucky to have survived."

Phil has had a remarkable physical recovery, though he now has blurred vision in one eye and "I’ll always have some trouble swallowing," he says. Restoring his mental health, rebuilding relationships and moving on with his life is a whole other challenge.

As his clinical team from Cairns and Hinterland Hospital and Health Service coordinated his recovery, Phil was fortunate they had the option of including a new service in his recovery plan – the Individual Recovery Support Program (IRSP).

To a health professional, this is a twelve-month recovery-focused, community-based outreach support service for adults who are recovering from serious mental illness. To Phil, it is simply Olivia.

Olivia is a Mind remote outreach support worker based in Innisfail/Tully, a few hours south of Cairns. Olivia drives out to Phil’s farm twice a week and supports him to get his life in a positive and sustainable frame.

Sometimes that is the practical stuff, like doing the weekly shopping, taking Phil to medical appointments or helping him apply to get his driving licence restored (Phil‘s licence was suspended as a result of his head injuries). Other times it is conversations over a cuppa or walking along nearby Mission Beach that can be catalysts in the process of rebuilding Phil’s mental health and a vision for the future.

"Phil has always been in work, so not working during his recovery was very challenging for him," says Olivia’s Manager, Toni Hines. "He was suddenly spending a lot of time sitting at home and so helping him keep a positive mindset was a big part of Olivia’s focus and getting him out and about was important too."

Throughout recovery Phil has been confident of returning to work but Olivia has also supported him to consider the difficult possibility of not getting his licence back and what a Plan B might be if that happens.

Phil has had a remarkable physical recovery, but restoring his mental health is a whole other challenge.

"When we discuss things, I get him to have a look at other solutions," Olivia says. "If something is carved in stone for Phil, I will challenge his thinking and how that would look in the real world. Then perhaps we can consider another solution."

Both Phil and Olivia recognise the trauma of what happened is still very raw but Phil is making plans that will help his recovery.

"I want to move away from Tully and make a fresh start away from the farm and all the old memories," he says. "I’m thinking I’ll move house and get a job down in the Burdekin area and I want to go back to farming again."

Asked what he would like to tell people who read his story, Phil says, "I don’t want people to think of my recovery as a miracle. It’s a lot of hard work and constant self-monitoring."

Having the right support makes it possible. It’s early days, but Phil says his work with Olivia is already making a difference.

I’m thinking about things differently to what I did before. Things were more negative before than they are now; I’m in a much better place.

Update: Supporting Phil during COVID-19

"The funny thing about the COVID-19 restrictions is that Phil and I had already moved to phone support before it happened," Olivia told Mind View when we checked in with her for an update recently.

"The huge thing that happened is he got his licence back, which has been fantastic for him. He got a job on a farm, which was a big goal of his."

It was a lot of driving (from the farm to meet Olivia in person) so Phil asked Olivia if they could switch to phone support.

"Phil has soldiered on and had a lot of positive life changes since you interviewed us. He is so excited to be back working on a farm again and it sounds like his employer has been a big support for him also," Olivia says.

"But he also recognises he still needs support. We now catch up by phone twice a week and he calls or texts if there is anything else he needs to talk about. And that’s working really well."

If this article has raised issues for you and you need support, call Lifeline 13 11 14 or MensLine Australia 1300 789 978.