AFTER a lengthy career in the hairdressing industry, Horsham salon owner Robyn Kelm was used to light-hearted chats with her clients.
During the depths of the millennium drought however, she noticed life taking a distinctly different tone.
The dry spell had started, then continued for the next six years or so.
Ms Kelm, who managed Sirs'n'Hers Hair Studio in Horsham for 33 years, said it felt like there was no end in sight.
"Country people can be resilient - particularly those in agriculture. But the farming community were really doing it tough," she said.
She said the culture around agriculture and the community made it tough for men to reach out for help when things were tough.
"In my younger years, the men of our family did the farming work. It was not a place for women back then. You could help with smaller jobs, but not in the shearing shed or on the tractors," she said.
"This was the culture that men grew up with; the knowledge that they were the providers of the family and responsible for the successful operation of the farm.
"The situation I was confronted with as the drought got worse was the struggle for women to help their husbands, sons, neighbours of friends."
Ms Kelm was one of many who offered their story of extreme climate as part of the Wimmera Development Association's Climate Eyes project.
The project looked to collect the stories and accounts of Wimmera residents who lived through tough climatic conditions - such as the millennium drought.
Ms Kelm said although the drought was only 15 years ago, it was a vastly different landscape in terms of access to help.
"The awareness of mental health issues was non-existent and it was never spoken about," she said.
"As a hairdresser, I became very aware of my client's moods and their demeanor as they entered the salon. Living and working the land with my own family helped me to be mindful of how dire the drought situation was becoming for our local towns and surrounding communities.
"Mental health has never really struck me as an issue in the region before - at least not at the level where people would be mentioning it when they were getting their hair done.
"So even though I didn't know anything about it, nor understand how to help - there had to be something I could do."
She said the catalyst for providing more mental health support came when she chatted with one of her clients, Marion Matthews, who was working with Horsham Rural City Council as a drought relief officer.
"I had a conversation with her sharing my concerns and frustrations with these issues," she said.
Ms Matthews jumped into action through her work role and within a short period of time had some resources available to provide information folders to assist families. The idea soon proved its worth.
"We discreetly placed the printed information in foyers, waiting areas and coffee tables for anyone to take home," she said.
"The folders worked as some clients, on their return, would say a quiet thank you or give you a smile worth a million words."
She said the information had helped ease the pressure for some, with better communication about the situation in the family home.
But the concept of using hairdressing salons to help put people in touch with mental health services did not stop at Sirs'n'Hers.
"Marion also suggested that maybe other hairdressers might be feeling the same as me and that we could look at participating in a course with an experience counsellor to improve our listening skills," she said.
"This was a daunting concept for me and most of the hairdressers in our local area."
However, she went through with the plan and David Cheery, a psychologist from Melbourne came to Horsham and shared his knowledge with those willing to participate and to understand circumstances within the salon.
Ms Kelm said the lessons had taught her alot.
"It was a guideline for self-management and diplomacy in a field that is far beyond hairdressing skills or expectations on any hairdresser," she said.
"The outcome for me personally was very rewarding. Clients would comment on the fact that they had no idea that the help and resources were available and that this was the first step in their process."
Ms Kelm said hairdressers were a good way of getting the message out to the community because of mutual respect and trust.
She said it had been a difficult time, but people had evolved and got better in their ability to deal with it.
"We were constantly reminded of the drought we were living in whenever we saw the dry lakes or the dead grass, but we became more resilient and more open to discussion about the circumstances around us," she said.
"My memories of the older generation were that they were very stoic and never complained but they too learned to share their hardship and the changes some were forced to make.
"As a community at large and with more awareness, we are able to recognise warning signs and the importance of engagement. We don't foresee all cases of people doing it tough but we probably get the majority.
"Our sporting clubs, working environments, schools, gyms, salons and businesses are instrumental with our support for others and knowing we care."
Ms Kelm's story came as part of the call for observations and stories of surviving and adapting in tough climatic times continues.
Participants have a chance to share their thoughts in a survey which is open to all residents via https://wda.surveysparrow.com/s/living-and-learning-in-drought/tt-69d05e.
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