STEVE Germon left a suicide note on the porch and set about putting down calves he couldn’t feed before turning the gun on himself. Then a ute screamed towards him, his 17-year-old daughter at the wheel.
DAIRY farmer Steve Germon knows what it’s like to be on the brink of suicide. He has been there twice in the past three years.
He can’t remember what saved him in 2015, but those lonely moments last year when he walked into a paddock on his farm near Taree, on the state’s north coast, are still fresh in his mind.
He’d left a suicide note on the porch for his family and then stood in the paddock putting down calves that he could no longer afford to feed.
He was about to turn the gun on himself when a ute screamed towards him, his 17-year-old daughter at the wheel.
“Jessica read the note and literally came to save my life,” Mr Germon, 47, said.
Now, Mr Germon is proudly “out of that dark place”, but his troubles haven’t completely settled.
He has a $74,000 grain debt, has recently separated from his wife, and Jessica’s school grades have slipped because she’s up at 4.30am every day to help milk the cows.
Mr Germon’s farm is suffering from what he calls a “green drought”.
His fields look healthy enough but it is a mirage, there is not enough “depth” to his pasture to support his cattle.
Country psychologists are in no doubt there is an unequivocal link between the drought and increases in suicide, suicidal thoughts, depression and anxiety.
It usually happens on Sundays or late at night, according to psychologist Dervla Loughnane, who helped Mr Germon mend himself emotionally. She said those times are when farmers have the most time to think.
It’s why her company, Virtual Psychologists, teamed up with Aussie Helpers, Australia’s largest rural charity, to launch a helpline for troubled farmers.
The service, staffed by seven psychologists and two social workers, takes two or three calls a day from people with nowhere else to turn.
Many use text messages instead of calling because they find it too hard to say what they think out loud.
“A farmer this week said he was sending a text because he didn’t want us to hear him cry,” Ms Loughnane said.
Another farmer wrote this week: “I feel defeated, I don’t want to deal with the pressures any more.”
It’s not only men seeking support. About 38 per cent of the text messages are from farmers’ wives, many of whom send messages to hide their shame and prevent their husbands overhearing their cries for help.
Women typically seek practical solutions to help their husbands, such as taking their guns away and spotting signs of depression.
“There’s also plenty of women claiming they’re overburdened from filling the typical farmer’s wife role of cooking, cleaning and looking after the kids, and being overburdened with farm work such as bookkeeping and dairy milking. They’re burning the candle at both ends,” Ms Loughnane said.
Emotional stability is closely tied to financial stability and for many farmers the road to depression begins with a downturn in cashflow.
Such was the case for Mr Germon. While his mental health has improved, the financial woes that drove him to suicidal thoughts have continued to deteriorate.
Not only did Jessica save her dad’s life, she saved the farm earlier this year when she took control of the dairy after Mr Germon’s toe needed amputating from an infection he sustained when a cow trod on his foot.
In 2015, he received 60c for every litre of milk produced on his farm, near Wingham, just outside of Taree. Now the price is down to 49.6 cents per litre.
He’s been forced to sell off cows because of rising feed prices, resulting in a 42 per cent drop in his usual production.
He also had to lay off his own son, Dean, who has taken a job at a nearby feedlot, because he couldn’t afford to pay his wage any more.
“Between the low milk price, not being able to feed my cattle properly and seeing all my hard work slip away, I nearly came to suicide twice, as recently as 10 months ago,” Mr Germon, whose family has been farming in the Manning Valley for four generations, said.
His lineage on the land has had its run, he said. He hopes Jessica pursues a new vocation once she graduates from high school.
“I want her to do well in Year 12 so she can make a career for herself and get off the farm,” he said.
The trickle-down effect of these debts — of seeing parents under stress, of seeing “final notice” bills stuck to the fridge — eventually reaches children, according to youth services working in these regions.
Many are presenting to experts citing the dollar amounts their parents owe to the gas and electricity companies. Some say they’ve become emotionally withdrawn at school or have given up a sport because of the costs.
“I’ve had young people from farms disclose that their fathers had attempted suicide and they’d later had suicidal thoughts of their own,” said Meghan Leary, Youth Care Co-ordinator for Tamworth Headspace.
By: JACK MORPHET
Source: The Sunday Telegraph