FFN Opinion: Open ended questions are key

Future Farmers Network directors regularly give their opinion on the latest news, events and issues in agriculture for an article for Australian Community Media. Here’s the most recent yarn from FFN Director Caitlin McConnel.

Despite our penchant for fortitude; persistence and open ended questions are keys to conversation about mental health and wellness in the bush.

Our trials with mental illness in the Australian bush have been documented for generations, despite the reluctance to openly engage in meaningful discussion on the topic.

As a result, it is really only now that the interpretation of some of our most iconic laments can be identified as more than just mere descriptions of life on the land. Rather, and with increased awareness and resources, some of the most breathtaking Australian poetry - penned over a century ago - can arguably provide an insight into the direct correlation between life in the bush, and its impact on symptoms associated with mental illness.

"Who now shall wear the cheerful face, in time when things are blackest. And who shall whistle round the place, When Fortune frowns her blackest". - Andy's Gone with Cattle (1888), Henry Lawson

"The drought is down on field and flock, the river-bed is dry; … In dull despair the days go by, with never hope of change". - With the Cattle (1896), Banjo Paterson

September and October are key months for the facilitation of events and discussion promoting mental health and wellness, particularly in rural and regional areas. However, in recent weeks, I've noticed a challenge to the very questions we're told to ask.

"RU OK?" or "Are you bogged, mate?" are critical questions to ask when we are concerned about a family member, friend or colleague who might be suffering from mental illness. Indeed, these questions have done a considerable service to those of whom are fighting to break the stigma associated with mental illness - particularly in rural and regional areas. Whilst there is no denying that these questions should be asked; I've recently reflected on a concern penned - from a fellow woman of the bush - that these are closed-ended questions which really only invite a 'yes or no' answer.

Yet - and rightly pointed out - the very reason mental health and wellness initiatives have been established, is to start a conversation. As a result, I consider that there is argument for changing tact when approaching those of whom we are concerned; by instead asking them open-ended questions.

Perhaps we should include a specific or generation observation (depending upon the person), to encourage reflection, and more than just a one word response - such as:

  • "I see you've got a lot on your plate at the moment, is there anything you're particularly worried about?"
  • "I'm concerned you've been running on fumes for a while mate, is there anything in particular that's keeping your wheels from turning?"

I think we should also keep in mind that persistence is key. Approaching someone to start a conversation about mental health and wellness is difficult, but it's important to remember that it's even harder for the person you're approaching to put into words what they are feeling, or experiencing. As a result, it's likely that your attempt to start a conversation will fail - and will fail often.

Once we've got someone talking, it's critically important we don't just tell them what to do. Instead, we should actively encourage them to consider engaging with mental health and wellness resources online, via the phone or through medical professionals; and significantly, we shouldn’t be afraid to offer support in helping them navigate those options - we may just pick up on a few choice tips for our own wellbeing.

Just as Lawson and Paterson opined over a century ago, I think it is clear that our identity, and our love of the land will continue to directly correlate with our experiences of mental illness.

Indeed, and despite the penchant for fortitude that often comes with being a person in the bush, the Black Dog has been with me for over half my life. Conversations have certainly failed me at times; but in truth, just knowing that someone was (and is) there for me, is sometimes all the support I've needed. As a result, I would encourage everyone to check in on those around you often, and importantly, also ask yourself the hard questions - there is great courage in admitting when you're just 'running on fumes'.

Caitlin McConnel is an agribusiness lawyer, a sixth-generation grazier, a Mental Health First Aider, and a Non-Executive Director of the Future Farmers Network.

'Drought', oil-on-canvas by Susan McConnel
'Drought', oil-on-canvas by Susan McConnel