‘Unhealthy paradigms’: Denmark farmer hopes to raise awareness of mental health in the bush

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

A champion of mental and physical wellbeing in rural WA is taking her fight against the “unhealthy paradigms” impacting farmers’ mental health to the national stage.

Denmark farmer and Farm Life Fitness founder Louise O’Neill is this week hoping to secure a meeting with Federal Assistant Minister for Mental Health and Suicide Prevention and Rural and Regional Health in Canberra.

The mental health advocate and mother of two is in the capital city for the National AgriFutures Rural Women’s Awards — which were held on Tuesday night after Countryman went to print — after winning the WA nod in May.

The sports therapist and mental health coach has spent the past six years helping men and women in the bush to “shift their mindset” and challenge the “unconventional paradigms” facing farming communities.

“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,” Mrs O’Neill said at the Women In Farming seminar last week.

“But unfortunately for some reason it is.

“Coupled with this is the fact that we have nearly double the suicide rate of our metropole counterparts.... (and) the Federal Budget has only invested an eighth of their mental health expenditure into rural and regional populations.

“How does that make you feel? I tell you what it stirs something up in me.”

Her passion stems from a personal level, with she and husband Warren — who she affectionately calls Wazza — having battled their own demons and seeing the impact it has had on regional communities.

“It comes from watching my friends, my community members mourn another life lost due to the unhealthy and unconventional paradigms that surrounded by farming,” she said.

“And it comes from talking to women new to farm life that are expected to fit in to the role, find their new identity or try and hold on to their old identity in what can be an isolating environment.

“But more than that, it comes from a place where I watched my husband dropped to his knees and start to cry because he was so overwhelmed, because he couldn’t lift himself out of the black hole he found himself in because of these unhealthy and unconventional paradigms around farming.”

That passion drove Farm Life Fitness, through which she delivers one-mindset coaching online, in the paddock and to businesses, as well as online group fitness classed to 35 women on farms across the Wheatbelt and Great Southern.

Of the trip east, Mrs O’Neill hoped to share her story and that of rural communities to “anyone and everyone” who would listen to raise awareness of mental health in the regions.

“We know there is so much stigma around mental health, but by telling our stories and by talking about it and talking about it passionately, I’m hoping that we can change that,” she said.

Up against six other “incredible” women, she said she was not expecting to win, but has had an “amazing” experience with Agrifutures as the WA winner and was grateful for the platform to share her work.

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