The young Kiwi shepherd bringing awareness to mental health issues in the industry

After her boyfriend took his own life at age 20, Elle Perriam is campaigning for mental health awareness in the farming industry.

Hunterville, November last year. The annual Shepherd’s Shemozzle was about to get underway. There was Elle Perriam centre stage, and some 200 young farm workers and their dogs lined up along the main street.

Less than a year had passed since her 20-year-old boyfriend Will had taken his life. She’d asked for a minute’s silence to remember him and the many others who had lost their lives to suicide.

At her side was Jess, Will’s treasured black dog. Jess would bark to break the silence and the other canines would follow. The noise was deafening.

“It was so loud, it sent shivers down your spine,” recalls Elle of the moment that launched Will to Live, a campaign to get young shepherds “speaking up” about their mental health.

It’s been over a year since she lost Will (left, at Riccarton Racecourse in 2017).

But as stunning as the sound of dozens of dogs barking in unison might have been, it was the number of shepherds’ hands that shot up in response to Elle’s questions about their emotional state that really hit home.

“I asked people to put their hand up if they had ever had a bad day in the yards and heaps of them put their hands up,” Elle says.

“I asked them to put their hand up if they had been mustering for 14 hours, had come home absolutely exhausted, were too tired to eat … and everyone put their hand up.”

Isolation, long hours and unsympathetic bosses. They’re recurring themes among the many young shepherds and farm workers Elle has spoken to since Will’s death.

Elle still has Will’s dog Jess as her constant companion.

The Canterbury-based 21-year-old knows the hazards of the job only too well. The Lincoln University student and part-time shepherd has worked both here and in Australia. She explains, “I’ve been on some amazing stations. Anyone from the big city would kill to live out there because of the tranquillity and peacefulness, but the loneliness is a big issue.

“I spent a year in the north Kimberleys. It was tough – I battled. Even though I was around a lot of people, I didn’t have any family or friends there.

“Here, you might be on one of the big stations and have five or six workmates. You see only those same people for eight months. If you don’t get along with them, or don’t feel confident enough to share what you’re feeling, that can be awful. You feel really alone.”

Elle met Will, a shepherd and talented rodeo rider, when they both worked in North Otago. They bonded over their shared love of the great outdoors. When he needed someone to look after Jess while he was in Canada for several months, Elle took her on.

She is grateful that after Will’s death, his family gave his beloved dogs to close friends and she got Jess. Not only does the big, black huntaway have sentimental value, but she’s become – appropriately enough given depression is often described as a “black dog” – the campaign’s mascot.

Described by his rodeo family as a “kind soul who would help anybody”, Will was easy-going, “super cruisy”, and “a happy human being”, says Elle.

He had, however, previously mentioned a bad patch he had gone through.

Elle and Jess appearing on Three’s The Project.

Elle explains, “He told us he felt really supported by family and friends, and that he’d got over that hump. We felt it was a good thing that he had told us. I would check up on him, ask how he was feeling, but he never really spoke about it again.”

Will had always had good bosses, tells Elle. The last one was more of a best mate than a task master. However, in the weeks leading up to his death, Will was working “massive hours, doing 15-hour days and coming home in the dark – pretty much like running a marathon every day”.

His sudden death was devastating, and the loss is still raw for Elle and his family. “The grief is unbearable,” she says. “No-one should have to experience it.”

In the immediate after-math, many people blamed themselves. They included several of Will’s co-workers who Elle and family members sought help for. They were put on an eight-week waiting list for counselling and that was the final straw for Elle.

“I created Will to Live purely out of built-up anger,” she asserts. “I was so frustrated there were very few support services for younger rural people.

“Yes, there are other initiatives for farmers, and they are great, but there was no-one really focusing on the workers, who also take on a lot of the pressure. Stress flows down from the manager to the stock manager to the shepherd. It has a horrible ripple effect.”

A State of the Rural Nation Survey, published in October, bares that out. It found 85% of 18 to 39-year-olds working in the sector were affected by stress and anxiety, with increasing numbers appearing in suicide statistics – 6.8% of all suicides are in farming and forestry.

Elle says it highlights a desperate need for more initiatives that get young people talking honestly and openly, and feeling OK about seeking help.

“I don’t see a lot of these guys ringing a hotline,” says Elle. “These younger guys don’t want to talk to a stranger – it’s not in their culture.”

She describes Will to Live as a travelling support service, with events planned across the country. They will be held in rural pubs and will kick off with a “speak up/bark up”.

That will be followed by “introductions and a feed, and then we’ll crack into the speakers”, which include Elle; her sister Sarah, a rural radio host and Chinese medicine practitioner; a mental health worker; and a local farmer.

Elle concludes, “We’re trying to get people to help themselves and others. It’s about finding their own will to live and knowing what tools work for them.

“I’m so passionate about it. If it helps one person, then it’s been worth it. And it’s super healing for me as well. When you hear that a person has come along because they heard about what we are doing, then that is something positive that’s come from Will’s death.”

Suicide facts: the dark side of farming

Twenty farmers took their own lives in the year ending June 30 2018 (Ministry of Justice). The Bayer NZ/Country TV State of the Rural Nation Survey 2018 found that:

✦ 70% of rural New Zealanders have felt increased stress over the last five years.

✦ Those aged 18 to 39 were the most affected by stress and anxiety.

✦ 56% of all participants were uncomfortable talking about their mental wellness and would rather deal with it themselves.

✦ Just under half said the stigma attached to the topic prevented them talking or seeking help.

✦ Details about Will to Live events can be found at facebook.com/willtolivenz/.

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