by Jess Smith

Ten South Australian Riverland locals – most of whom are Lutherans – are getting loud on mental health, taking part in a wellbeing movement that’s having a significant impact on the community.

The Vocal Locals are prominent Loxton community members, either farmers or with agricultural connections, who have been working with wellbeing group ifarmwell to share their mental health journeys via social media. Each member has undertaken workshops and a coaching program, as well as learning strategies through ifarmwell online modules and other resources they’ve been able to share to help others facing similar challenges.

The program aims to normalise conversations around mental health, strengthen wellbeing and build drought resilience, helping people to realise they’re not alone.

The backstory to Vocal Locals began when Little Town Productions theatre show Kick off ya Boots premiered last year. The production told the story of a typical Australian farming family, the Conners, and revealed the often-unspoken side of life in a rural community. One of the production’s main goals was to start the mental health conversation, after its creators recognised the community need for practical, targeted support.

‘When we first developed Kick off ya Boots we were very conscious of not having people attend the show, having a great night of fun and laughter, but then promptly forgetting about it two months later’, says John Gladigau, Kick off ya Boots producer-playwright, Vocal Locals project coordinator and member of St Peter’s Lutheran Church in Loxton, from which Little Town Productions hails.

Little Town worked with UniSA’s Dr Kate Gunn, ifarmwell’s founder, to create a production that went far beyond merely entertaining its audience. Galvanised by the overwhelming response, and with funding from the national not-for-profit Foundation for Rural and Regional Renewal, the Vocal Locals initiative was conceived. Little Town Productions remains a supporting partner, as does St Peter’s Lutheran Church, which has opened its offices for wellbeing coaching sessions.

Vocal Local Leanne Kaesler, who is also a member at St Peter’s, was the coordinator of Kick off ya Boots and is part of a farming family. She knows firsthand the struggles that many farmers face – often in silence.

‘I have struggled with anxiety and depression issues, and suffered burnout quite a few times’, says Leanne. ‘It really excited me to be invited to become a Vocal Local and to be given the opportunity to focus on learning new skills and tools to manage my own wellbeing, and to also be able to share my journey to help others.’

John says the community response has been exceptional.

‘Mental health and wellbeing is something we all seem to agree should be part of our normal conversations’, he says. ‘We all talk about how we should be open about it, but we rarely do it. We’ve seen through the Vocal Locals posts how much people appreciate the engagement and open conversations, and the community has been very engaging, supportive and encouraging not only of the Vocal Locals but also of each other.’

This story first appeared in the LCA South Australia – Northern Territory District’s Together magazine.

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