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‘I’d lost my passion’: Denmark farmer shares battle with mental health to help others

Headshot of Shannon Verhagen
Denmark farmer and Farm Life Fitness founder Louise O'Neill.
Camera IconDenmark farmer and Farm Life Fitness founder Louise O'Neill. Credit: Shannon Verhagen/Countryman/Countryman

The day Denmark farmer Louise O’Neill saw her husband fall to his knees in the sheep yards, was the day everything changed.

Heavily pregnant, unwell and battling her own demons, her heart broke as he cried.

The gut-wrenching moment in the middle of seeding nine years ago thrust each of their own personal mental health battles into a glaring spotlight.

It was the day they decided, “enough is enough”.

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The sports therapist and mother of two is now making waves shaking up the “unhealthy paradigms” and stigma facing the agricultural sector and championing mental and physical well being in farming communities.

What should have been an exciting time, with their first-born Hamish on the way, was anything but.

She believes she was on the verge of, or had, pre-natal depression, while her husband Warren — who she affectionately calls Wazza — was facing his own struggles as a tirelessly working farmer.

That fateful day in the sheep yards was the “straw that broke the camel’s back”.

“I’d lost my passion for absolutely everything,” Louise said.

“While I was going through my own battle, he was battling his as well. He didn’t know where to go... what to do and I didn’t know where to go and what to do. So right there in that moment. We were together but we were so far apart.

“Watching your husband dropped to his knees and cry because he could didn’t know what to do, it changes something in you.”

What came “out of the storm” was Farm Life Fitness.

Denmark farmer and Farm Life Fitness founder Louise O'Neill.
Camera IconDenmark farmer and Farm Life Fitness founder Louise O'Neill. Credit: Shannon Verhagen/Countryman/Countryman

Through online fitness classes and mindset coaching, she has channelled her own experience to foster a sense of connection in the bush and transform the mental and physical health of rural communities.

Time and location are no barrier, with clients encouraged to include functional movements in their day, wherever they may be, with whatever they may have on-hand at the farm at the time.

“Just because we choose to live here it doesn’t mean we should miss out on these services — but we do,” she said.

Denmark farmer and Farm Life Fitness founder Louise O'Neill helps rural people keep moving, using whatever they may have around them to exercise.
Camera IconDenmark farmer and Farm Life Fitness founder Louise O'Neill helps rural people keep moving, using whatever they may have around them to exercise. Credit: Shannon Verhagen/Countryman/Countryman

Every day, the sports therapist — and soon to be ECU psychology and counselling graduate — is working to change the “unhealthy paradigms” facing farmers.

“There is no other job that requires us to work 24 hours a day, seven days a week and farming should not be the exception,” Louise said.

“We are not superheroes and we cannot be everything to everyone.

“We need to give back to ourselves and improve our mental health before we can give to others.”

Her journey to becoming one of the Wheatbelt’s leading health advocates began back in 2010, when she found herself working in a physio clinic in Northam, WA and met fifth-generation Southern Brook farmer Wazza.

Six years ago, after having their second son Darcy, she decided to pursue the connection between mental health and movement and its value in allowing people to be present in the moment and take their minds off life’s stresses, even if for a moment.

“Movement has absolutely saved me and I am so passionate about making sure that other people get that as well,” she said.

“There is so much that happens in our body physiologically when we move and it affects our mood.”

Denmark farmer and Farm Life Fitness founder Louise O'Neill.
Camera IconDenmark farmer and Farm Life Fitness founder Louise O'Neill. Credit: Shannon Verhagen/Countryman/Countryman

It helped Louise and Wazza regain their passion for agriculture and life in general.

“I love farming,” Louise said. “I love absolutely everything it represents. I love the life it gives our boys and I am so proud to be part of this population.”

Starting out hosting face-to-face fitness classes in rural towns, COVID-19 accelerated her progression into the online realm.

She now streams her classes from the rolling hills of the 175ha Denmark property they purchased in 2020 to a tight-knit community of 35 women on farms in the Wheatbelt, Great Southern and the eastern states.

Denmark farmer and Farm Life Fitness founder Louise O'Neill helps rural people keep moving, using whatever they may have around them to exercise.
Camera IconDenmark farmer and Farm Life Fitness founder Louise O'Neill helps rural people keep moving, using whatever they may have around them to exercise. Credit: Shannon Verhagen/Countryman/Countryman

While fitness is in the name, Mrs O’Neill said the lion’s share of her work was talking to men and women about emotional well-being.

“I found that a lot of people — especially the men — just wanted to talk,” she said.

“We give people a space to say, ‘me too — thank God I’m not the only one’.

“Exercise is 30 per cent of what I do. The rest is emotional, mental wellbeing, time management, grounding techniques, making them aware of their emotional first aid toolbox, stuff they can do on farm and encouraging the men to take time out as much as the women.”

She believes her lived experience helps farmers realise they are not alone.

“I say, ‘you know what? I have been in your shoes, literally. And this is our story — we hit rock bottom,’” she said.

“I am so humbled by the farmers that I meet who are willing to say, ‘enough is enough — I can’t keep doing what I’m doing’.”

AgriFutures 2022 Rural Women Award winner Louise O'Neill and Agricultural MLC Jackie Jarvis.
Camera IconAgriFutures 2022 Rural Women Award winner Louise O'Neill and Agricultural MLC Jackie Jarvis. Credit: AgriFutures/AgriFutures

She has also recently begun expanding her work to helping rural businesses create work cultures which promote health and wellness.

“If the farmers are working 24 hours a day, seven days a week, the businesses that are supporting them damn near close to that as well,” Louise said.

“They carry the farmers’ stress, especially through these past couple of years, whether it’s trying to get fertiliser or machinery... there’s a chain reaction.”

Looking ahead, the fierce advocate is hoping to reach more farmers not only in WA but over east and help them improve their mental health, find their passion again and take time for themselves.

“My passion is making sure that everyone in ag realises that their health is their wealth,” she said.

“Not the crops in the ground, not the livestock or the wool that comes off the livestock — their health is their wealth.

“I love it. I’m so proud of it. I’ve seen some amazing changes and I’m very lucky that I get such a rewarding job every day.”

More information can be found at farmlifefitness.com.au and Louise can be contacted at louise@farmlifefitness.com.au.

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