“ARE you going to kill yourself?”
It was a grave question to be asking over the phone, but fortunately the answer at the other end of the line was a decisive no.
The country bloke was, however, full of grief and burning questions.
In two weeks he had lost two mates to suicide, and he needed someone to help him process the unspeakable loss.
That someone was Mary O’Brien, a Catholic woman from the Darling Downs who spends most of her days talking to country men, like the man on the phone, in their sheds about spray drift management.
And that’s how she came to the confronting question.
“I was on the phone to him one night and I thought, should I drive out to his farm? Is he okay? How do I know who’s next?” the 49 year old said.
She knew of the two men who had taken their own lives – she had even been to the funeral – but she was closer to the friends and family they left behind.
Their misery and confusion gripped her.
“And I thought, I don’t know anything about this, so maybe I need to skill up,” Mary said.
“Since all I do is talk to men, I probably should know a little bit about men’s mental health.”
She started by researching suicide and depression in rural Australian men.
The findings were not helpful.
She learnt that the so-called experts in men’s mental health believed suicides among rural men were high because “they don’t know how to express their feelings” and the only way to stop them taking their lives was to change them.
“And I thought, well, surely it’s better if we change the way we communicate with them,” Mary said.
In response to the research, Mary wrote a raw and cathartic piece for the 2018 February/March edition of The Australian Cottongrower magazine, titled ‘Are you bogged mate?’.
“I’m fairly well known in the agricultural world for saying what I think, and so when I sat down and wrote that article, it was probably more of my healing process, because these guys who were left behind were ringing me to talk about their mates,” Mary said.
She criticised the experts, saying despite their qualifications, they didn’t know a single thing about rural men.
“And this is what I do know,” Mary wrote.
“Country men are the toughest, hardest working, funniest, most sincere, totally dependable, thoroughly genuine people you will ever meet.
“So don’t sit in your university office in the city and tell me that you know rural men.”
She concluded her “venting” by pleading with rural men to ask for help if they were feeling bogged rather than choose “a permanent solution for a temporary problem”.
The response was overwhelming.
“It was a huge response, from all over the world, from country men,” Mary said.
Almost overnight, Mary had “accidentally” become an advocate for men’s mental health, and she knew she couldn’t drop the ball.
Instead she launched Are You Bogged Mate in September 2018.
The bridging program addresses the way depression and suicide are communicated to country men, and ultimately, to lower the rates of suicide.
Mary travels all over Australia taking her unique approach to rural men, usually in the comfort of their own sheds.
“With what I do now with my speaking engagements, I do a fair bit of reading and listening to people with the clinical knowledge, and they’ve got all these fancy clinical words, and so I take them and I put them into either an analogy they understand, or just put their terminology around it and that’s why they love it so much,” Mary said.
“People talk about releasing emotions, whereas I talk about emptying your bucket, your emotional bucket.
“So when it starts to get full, you need to be able to empty your emotional bucket and it just makes sense to them when you talk about it like that.”
Mary is so respected, especially among rural men, that on June 19, nearly two years after starting Are You Bogged Mate, she was named this year’s winner of the Australian Mental Health Forum’s Queensland Men’s Health Award and the Women Working in Men’s Health Award.
Mary said her story reflected a parable she heard almost daily while at boarding school at Lourdes Hill College, Hawthorne.
“I guess the whole Are you Bogged Mate thing is a little bit like the Good Samaritan story,” Mary said.
“Obviously Lourdes Hill College was founded by Good Samaritan Sisters, whereas I don’t have any training, I don’t have any expertise, I’m just ordinary Joe off the street, but it turns out I’m able to help people.”
Rural men need all the help they can get.
On average, eight people die to suicide every day in Australia, and six of those are men.
Rural men are twice as likely to suicide as city men, and five times more likely than metropolitan women.
“All I set out to do was save one life,” Mary said.
“I know of at least three or four lives that I’ve potentially saved which is really nice.
“That’s what I find really humbling – they trust me enough to talk to me about their deepest, darkest fears and concerns and worries.”
Depression is still a stigma in rural and country towns.
It is often perceived as a sign of weakness or failure.
Hunting down the black dog is even more difficult when the whole town knows your every move.
“There is that stigma around it as well,” Mary said.
“So if they went and parked outside the pub for two days, everyone would know what they’re doing.
“If they go and park outside the doctor’s office or the psychologists office, everyone knows what they’re doing.”
As a Catholic woman who grew up in an area where Mass could only be offered once a month, Mary also understands the importance of faith to some rural men.
“I think particularly in the rough times we’ve had in recent years, those with faith have found great strength in it,” she said.
“And again it’s coming back to that, what do you do that empties your emotional bucket?”
“That might be playing football, that might be going to church.”
Natural disasters and financial pressures are common causes of depression leading to suicide among rural men, but Mary said there were two emerging causes that get less attention – domestic violence, and the increasing divide between city and country.
“I’m actually quite shocked at the amount of domestic violence out there towards men and they never report it,” Mary said.
“Sometimes if they do, they’re ignored or police laugh at them because perhaps their partner’s a tiny, petite person, and they’re these big strong men, and they just don’t believe they could be impacted by domestic violence, and they are,” Mary said.
“I think in recent years one of the main things that does affect a lot of them is that divide between city and country, that they are sort of seen as these evil perpetrators, environmental vandals.
“I think the understanding of what (rural men) do and how they do it is really lost on metropolitan Australia today.
“They still think they’re leaning on a pitch fork chewing on a piece of straw, whereas they’re the most technologically advanced farmers in the world, and the most productive and the most environmentally-focused.”
Mary said the spread of misinformation about life on the land, usually by city folk, was putting unnecessary stress on Australian rural men.
“A classic example was the other day when I talked to some farmers and I had someone from the city there and they asked what impact COVID-19 was having on farmers.
“And one fella said, ‘Well actually I think it’s pretty good, because for one, farmers aren’t getting blamed for it’.”
She said city dwellers should get the facts from rural men, not social media.
“If I wanted information on hairdressing, I wouldn’t go to a mechanic, so don’t go to social media to find out about farming,” Mary said.
“Go to a farmer.
“That’s important particularly in relation to climate change stuff – these guys are impacted by the climate more than city people, so of course they’re concerned about this.
“They’re right into storing carbons and reducing emissions and stuff, but people don’t bother to find out the facts and the information of what they’re actually doing.
“They just assume that they are wrecking everything.”
Mary said one of the most practical ways to support rural men, especially farmers, was to buy Australian-made and owned products, and to be educated about the work of rural blokes, including farmers, machinery workers, rural town business owners, and even miners.
Talking and shaking hands with these men – the ultimate sign of respect in the country – would be an enormous help, but Mary understands the COVID-19 restrictions could make that difficult.
It’s one of the things she misses most.
“I do miss travelling around and talking to country blokes because they have a wonderful sense of humour,” Mary said.
“It doesn’t matter how tough the times are, they have a great sense of humour.
“Ultimately if they can laugh, it’s going to be good for them.”