More than a handshake

John Harper is an animated man, but when he starts talking about the wellbeing of regional Australians, his energy is contagious.

The retired farmer and shearer from Stockinbingal is a passionate advocate for mental health and the powerhouse behind Mate helping Mate, a self-help program to address depression in rural communities.

It was personal experience of mental illness that led John to this advocacy role.

JOH1903_10_phn_Stories_JohnHarper-5WEB.jpg

“I suffered depression when I retired from shearing. And I tell people that's bloody mad to start with; you'd think you'd be bloody happy not shearing. But I love shearing and I missed it.

“At that stage I was about 45. The sky should have been the limit, but I felt dead. I'm sitting on the verandah with no motivation, no energy. I can't shear, can't drench sheep, don't want to put any crop in’.

“I got help in the end because my wife just whinged and nagged me. I went to the doctor's just to shut her up, thinking nothing was really wrong with me. The doctor is a friend but when he said I had depression, I near throttled him because I thought he was having me on.

“Anyway, he talked me around a bit and said, ‘I think you should go and see a counsellor’. I went, not because I thought I had depression, but because he was a mate and a mate wouldn't give me bum advice.”

JOH1903_10_phn_Stories_JohnHarper-14WEB.jpg

While he may not have believed counselling would help him, John said the advice he received led him towards wellbeing and eventually advocacy.

“We talked it out and this is where the clincher came. The counsellor said to me, ‘The best thing you can do is go and talk with your mates. Tell them what you feel, tell them what you think’ and I did precisely that.

“I went and talked with about six of my mates. I said how I felt. Ratshit! Terrible! And to a man they all said, ‘Oh, that's surprising, we never thought you'd be that bloke’. They all went away but within three weeks, three of the blokes had come back to me. One bloke had all this debt and he couldn't sleep. Another was saying how he had no energy and his wife had him on all this health stuff [supplements] to pick him up.”

Realising he wasn’t the only one struggling was the turning point for John. He started talking to people and realised helping others made him feel good. And feeling good is better than feeling like shit. Since then, he has been telling it exactly as he sees it, giving his practical advice to a range of agencies and government departments and helping raise awareness of what people in rural communities are experiencing.

JOH1903_10_phn_Stories_JohnHarper-2WEB.jpg

“Generally, I would say most farmers are coping relatively well and that’s because we went through the Millennium Drought and a lot of us older farmers have been through several others before that. I think the biggest thing I see in my travels through Queensland, Victoria and New South Wales is the hidden fear that our little towns and communities are slowly dying with the drought.

“The reason I advocate is I want to make the world a better place. I have a very simple goal – I want my kids, and my kids' kids, to be better people than me. And to do that I've got to give them an example. It's not just saying it, it's actually doing it, because actions speak louder than words. It’s that simple.”

Helping to feel good

John is a firm believer that giving back is good for you.

“My wife and I made a pact that on alternate months, we would do something the other would like. For me, it was going to big sports games. My wife made me go to the ballet and orchestras and symphonies. Blokes in tights. Well, I’m not into that but I gradually work up to the fact how good it made me feel making my wife happy.

“Mate helping Mate came back to the fact that helping somebody else makes you feel good.

JOH1903_10_phn_Stories_JohnHarper-18WEB.jpg

“The Burrumbuttock Hay Runners are a good example of that. In the Millennium Drought, we were all struggling. Yet we had people in Victoria, Tasmania, wherever, donating hay, taking time off, running their own trucks. All they were getting was their fuel, not their time, anything else. This is thousands of dollars to run and help others.

“One year there was a bloke about 82-years-old who had lost his house on the farm and then his other house burned down, and he lost his header in the harvest. He was flat as a tack. Didn't want to do anything but had told the Hay Runners he would go.  He definitely didn’t want to go but his family and mates made him honour his commitment. He took a 79-year-old mate with him.

“We were up past Bourke and people were coming out 20ks, 40ks from their properties onto the side of the road, waiting for the convoy to go through. They were there sitting in chairs, waiting with umbrellas up, drinking beers, and the kids had placards – ‘Thank you Hay Runners’.

“I remember the truck stopped with these two old fellas at the front of the truck, bawling their eyes out crying. I'm saying, ‘What's wrong? Are you all right?’ And they say, ‘This is just so good. This has been the best thing I could have done. I was buggered. I just had a gut-full of everything and this is just beautiful."

“Mate helping Mate is that concept. It comes back to the fact that most blokes are like me. I couldn't help myself with my mental illness, but I found you’d do anything for a mate. I realised that my mates were struggling, and other people were too. And by getting my mates together and talking, I discovered it picked me up, too.”

JOH1903_10_phn_Stories_JohnHarper-12WEB.jpg

Through talking to communities, John has developed a firm idea of what’s needed when times are tough.

“I'd just say talk to your mates, talk to your neighbours.

“One of the best things that happened for us in the Millennium Drought was that we took to pulling up and shaking hands with our neighbours. Life had got so busy that we would drive down the road and just wave as we go past.

“I made the point of telling people, if you see a mate, you actually shake hands. Shaking hands is important. You stop and you make time for people. You make eye contact, there's touch. We got to the stage where we all thought to be any good, we had to be the best. And to be the best you stand on your Pat Malone. But that's not true.

JOH1903_10_phn_Stories_JohnHarper-22WEB.jpg

“My initial goal was that I wanted my kids to be better than me. If they're better than me, even by a fraction, that means the world has got to be that much better than it was when I lived here, and that's what I'm saying to people. It's not about how many acres you've got, or how many millions. It's about the fact that we don't have people suffering. It sounds simple but it's bloody hard to actually put into practice. It’s up to us to try.”

The Australian Government resource Head to Health has digital mental health and wellbeing resources, for yourself or for someone you care about – visit headtohealth.gov.au.

 Anyone who is experiencing a mental health emergency (themselves or others) should call Mental Health Line 1800 011 511, Lifeline 13 11 14 or call 000.

Monica McInnes