WIMMERA men are opening up about their mental health now more than ever, but mental health advocates say there is still room for improvement.
It comes after the shock death of AFL legend Danny Frawley last week.
The Mail-Times spoke to three Wimmera people who have helped start conversations about men's mental health in the region.
Footy legend to mental health advocate
FORMER footballer and retired farmer John Sudholz is an advocate for mental health.
Mr Sudholz said mental health was never spoken about when he first started feeling particularly alone and isolated.
"Nobody knew about it. I felt isolated and I also didn't understand what was wrong with me," he said.
"Back then, I didn't have any confidence to talk to people about it - including my friends. I do say these days that the best thing to do when you're feeling low is to talk to a mate.
"I felt like I had led such a charmed life that I didn't want to put a burden on other people who were less fortunate than I was."
Mr Sudholz debuted for South Melbourne in the Victorian Football League in 1966 and was the club's leading goalkicker for four consecutive seasons.
"When I was young I felt like I could run through a brick wall and get through the other side, but that's not what happens with mental health," he said.
"I wasn't diagnosed in the early days. I would have gone to my GP for a footy injury, but I wouldn't have even discussed the issue of mental health with them."
He made the decision to return to his family's farm in Rupanyup in 1971. He said the early 1980s was difficult on his mental health - particularly the drought of 1982.
"Farmers were always a family within their industry. There were always labourers on the farm and farmers had that social element more. Whereas when I started farming, farmers were incredibly isolated," he said.
"You could work on the farm and go three or four days without seeing anybody. That was a real issue for me because I've always been a people person; I didn't realise back then that it was a problem and in hindsight isolation was a real issue for me.
"If you have somebody you can actually talk to about it, that relieves the pressure for a while."
RELATED: Raising awareness about seeking help
Mr Sudholz had a mental breakdown in 1988 which he described as a turning point.
He started opening up about his mental health to loved ones, and began seeing a mental health nurse and a psychologist.
"I realised things weren't too good for me. Nobody knew why I had changed from being a prominent and socially active person in the community to doing nothing," he said.
"You can be down the street and be happy as Larry, but once you come home to closed doors all of a sudden you're in a very low ebb and everything is not rosy. In my case, that's when I started talking about taking my own life, but luckily for me that never happened.
"That's when it got to the stage that I made some decisions to improve my life which was a turning point."
After former Mail-Times journalist Faye Smith and ABC's Landline each published stories about his journey, Mr Sudholz was approached by Beyond Blue about being one of the organisation's first ambassadors.
In his role Mr Sudholz would talk to community groups and organisations about his experience.
"I did that for many years and have spoken to many groups through western Victoria. I would just tell my story and how I've been able to manage my mental health," he said.
Although he has recently retired from his role as a Beyond Blue ambassador, Mr Sudholz said he still wanted to advocate for change.
"It's my opinion that you don't quite recover from mental illness - you tend to manage it. I still have my moments these days, but I'm able to deal with it and move on," he said.
"What happened with Danny Frawley affected me greatly even though I didn't know him. When people heard that I had a nervous breakdown, people didn't know about it, and little did they know that behind closed doors I was struggling."
Mr Sudholz said he was glad men felt more open to talking about their mental health now.
"It is more in the open, which is a positive thing. Men are now not afraid to make some sort of positive decisions to get their issues resolved," he said.
"Twenty years ago you would hear about somebody taking their own life, but it was always hush-hush.
"It's much easier now for a man who is dealing with stress to talk to someone about it. You shouldn't be ashamed to talk about it. It's something that you've got to cope with and seek the appropriate help so you can move onto the next step of your life."
Rural program proves a success
MENTAL health initiative, the Rural Outreach Program, started in West Wimmera shire last year. It has since expanded to take in the Yarriambiack and Hindmarsh shires and Horsham municipality.
The program's three workers travel across the region, speaking with clients face-to-face about their mental health concerns.
Rural outreach worker Mal Coutts said men's mental heath was a major focus for the initiative.
"It may be the men with a mental health issue, but that also affects those around them, too. Their loved ones also struggle and need help, too," he said.
He said men's willingness to open up about their mental health was improving.
"It's getting better but it's taking time. Men are becoming more open to talking about it and it's finally getting through to them," he said.
Mr Coutts said a recent spate of cases where men took their own lives had highlighted the need for continuing men's mental health conversations.
"When people get to that state of mind, taking their own lives can be the only thing they think will end the pain," he said.
"People are now thinking, 'maybe if I talk to someone, I won't get to that state of mind'.
"Sometimes men feel like they can't tell others about how they're feeling, but the great thing about the outreach program is that they can talk and there's not such thing as a stupid question."
A report released in June revealed the program's workers had visited 48 per cent of clients within the first 24 hours of making contact.
Mr Coutts said he was pleased more people were becoming aware of the program.
"Now people are actually calling us for information about where they can get help. It's becoming more than just listening and talking to people," he said.
"Most of the time people will just call the intake number. Us workers are pretty well known in our areas, so people just call up and have a chat.
"Sometimes it's because they're worried about a loved one or a neighbour, but they really come from anywhere. Some people want to talk for five minutes, others for two hours.
"More people are starting to realise that this program gives them a chance to talk to someone; it's not a clinical thing."
Community support is essential
MAKING community connections is one of the best ways to improve mental health, a Wimmera pastor says.
Stawell's City Heart Church of Christ pastor and former Stawell Men's Shed president Terry Dunn said it was important for men with feelings of isolation to join groups and make lasting friendships.
"One of the major benefits of men's sheds is the camaraderie between the men," he said.
"Some of the men who come to men's sheds might have been forced to retire which means they didn't get a chance to fully plan their retirement.
"That causes all kinds of issues, so it's important these men can build up a rapport with each other to the point where they're happy to discuss all kinds of issues.
"Often that discussion turns to health problems they might have and life concerns. The big question they often ask is, 'how do I deal with all this time I've got now?'.
"Men are a proud lot and say they can deal with whatever issue they have, but often they can't. It's so important to have those channels and networks that they can rely on and talk about their problems."
Mr Dunn said the issue of men's mental health was especially pertinent in regional areas.
"Life can be very hard for a framer who has lost his wife - he talks to his neighbour and to his dog, but when he's having a bad day there's no one there to turn to," he said.
"It's important that these people realise that there is life outside of their working life and past the farm gate."
Stawell's City Heart Church of Christ hosts a Break the Boredom dinner every Tuesday night for single people in the region.
"These are single people who need companionship. It's hard to understand the impact of that fully unless you're in their shoes," he said.
- If you, or someone you know needs support, contact Lifeline on 13 11 14, Kids Help on 1800 55 1800 or Suicide Call Back Service on 1300 659 467
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