Foundation for Rural & Regional Renewal

The Loxton region of South Australia is the central hub of the grain producing area of the Northern Murray Mallee but also produces a range of other crops including citrus, wine grapes and almonds, as well as livestock. However, this productive region experienced three years of drought between 2017-2019 and, at the time this project was put forward, was in its fourth year of drought, with more than 2,000 farming business affected.

Farmers and regional communities more broadly, face numerous barriers to accessing traditional forms of mental health support, due to reduced access to health professionals in rural areas, long waiting lists, stoicism, stigma around mental health and a tendency to minimise problems. There is often distrust of many health professionals and hesitancy in engaging with mental health services, who farmers perceive as not understanding their way of life.

Given these issues, and the significant impact that long-running dry had on the whole community, wellbeing had been a significant focus in the Loxton community. For example a sell-out musical, ‘Kick Off Ya Boots’, written by local farmer John Gladigau, and performed by locals, had successfully started conversations about mental health and wellbeing. The success of ‘Kick Off Ya Boots’ prompted Dr Kate Gunn, Clinical Psychologist, Founder of ifarmwell.com.au and Senior Research Fellow in the Department of Rural Health at the University of South Australia (UniSA), to continue working with locals, including the ‘Kick Ooff Ya Boots’ team, to implement what became known as the Vocal Locals project. In addition to providing a way for the community to better support one another, it was also an opportunity to further research the uptake of health and mental-health promoting behaviours within communities, especially as droughts are expected to increase in their frequency and intensity in coming years.

Supported by a $148,250 grant through the Future Drought Fund’s Networks to Build Drought Resilience program, this project was co-designed locally to enhance drought resilience by strengthening the capacity of professional, social and community networks in Loxton. The aim was to support mental health in local networks by training local ambassadors (i.e. the Vocal Locals) at events and via the freely available ifarmwell modules, and then supporting them to pursue their own wellbeing goals with a local wellbeing coach, and post about what they were doing for their wellbeing on social media.

In addition to drawing on many years of research in this field, conducted by Dr Gunn and her team, the approach built on the local success of a musical written by Loxton farmer John Gladigau, who agreed to act as the Program Coordinator. His musical ‘Kick Off Ya Boots’ celebrated rural life, explored challenges commonly faced by farming families (e.g. succession planning) and with guidance from Dr Gunn, incorporated wellbeing messages and tips to cope with difficult circumstances. The logic was that it would be powerful if individuals from the region saw similar wellbeing messages being reinforced by multiple local people they know.

There were five parts to the Vocal Locals project:

  1. Training: Ten ‘Vocal Locals’ and 17 other community members participated in a half-day mental health knowledge and skills workshop. A further half-day session for the Vocal Locals helped orientate them to how the Vocal Locals campaign would work, including how to brush up on their social media skills. The Vocal Locals also completed the five, freely available online ifarmwell modules, a tool for reducing distress and improving mental wellbeing among farmers, and encouraged others to do the same.
  2. Wellbeing coaching: Vocal Locals each completed eight wellbeing coaching sessions designed to help them pursue their own wellbeing goals, and post about them on social media.
  3. Social media posting: The local volunteers posted roughly once a week on social media about their wellbeing journey, and there was a public Facebook group created which attracted 870 followers, with 6,800 people reacting to, commenting on, or sharing the posts.
  4. Communications campaign: A broad communications campaign included a flyer drop to 2,500 households in Loxton, a two-page spread in the Riverland Football League match day program, interviews on local community radio, articles in The Murray Pioneer and the Stock Journal. The ifarmwell team also supplemented Vocal Locals’ posts on the public Vocal Locals Facebook page, with posts communicating six key wellbeing messages in different ways.
  5. Campaign dinners: Vocal Locals attended three dinners with the project team, with the last also involving family members and support people, and representatives from local organisations and government.

In an article written by ABC Digital, John Gladigau said it had been great to continue the conversations sparked by his musical.

“While these are not taboo subjects, we don’t talk a lot about mental health and wellbeing,” he said. “However, people are willing to [share] if they have the opportunity to.”

Mr Gladigau said he and Dr Gunn had been impressed with how open the participants had been in talking about their struggles.

“Even some of the really tough times… people have related to that and have jumped on and talked about their own experiences and encouraged each other. I think it’s about normalising those conversations,” he said.

Dr Gunn explained that the campaign was designed to operate at two levels.

“At an individual level, the initiative provided the Vocal Locals with the opportunity to learn more about mental health and wellbeing, and strategies that can help improve it, and to work towards their own wellbeing goals. At a community level, the initiative was designed to share practical, evidence-based strategies to help community members improve their wellbeing, increase their understanding of how to achieve positive mental health and wellbeing, and normalise talking about mental health and wellbeing and supporting others to improve their wellbeing.

“We have also been blown away by the creative ways that Vocal Locals used their role to get messages about mental health out into the community. They shared information about the initiative in their workplaces, sporting groups, farming systems groups, and agricultural bureaus for example. One Vocal Local who is also an egg producer, printed short messages on his eggs to raise mental health awareness – for example, one message was “give it a crack”. Another Vocal Local who included a photo of his ram wearing a Vocal Locals hat on the front cover of his ram sale catalogue spoke about the campaign to an audience of 80-100 local farmers just prior to the ram auction. The initiative has had such a profound impact on another Vocal Local that he pitched a radio segment to local community radio, to bring people together to share stories and talk about the ups and downs of being human. We are really proud of the impact that it had.”

Dr Chloe Fletcher, Research Associate, UniSA added that, “Our evaluation of the impact of the project in the Loxton community showed that there were statistically significant increases in the number of conversations people were having with others about mental health and wellbeing, their comfort in speaking to others about mental health, and their engagement in wellbeing activities.”

WATCH THIS VIDEO to see what the group said about the experience.

For more inspiring stories like this, head to our FY 2021/22 Annual Review.