There was a moment, deep in an Argentinian paddock, after travelling through New Zealand, to Canada, then France, Poland and Ireland, where Sarah Crosthwaite realied that all people wrestle with similar issues.

“If I’m honest, even though I grew up on a farm, I’ve always been more interested in health science than agricultural science. But I had this moment in Argentina, a quiet conversation with a farmer, where he shared the trials and tribulations of farming, his struggles, and difficulties,” Sarah said.

“I realised, it’s not about the soil and the worms, it’s about the people. No matter where we farm across the world, we all have common challenges and we are all dealing with the same problems.”

In 2023, Sarah received a Nuffield Scholarship. The Gardiner Foundation, in partnership with Nuffield Australia, offers a farming scholarship to a Victorian dairy farmer each year. The scholarship provides an opportunity for a farmer to investigate an agricultural topic of their choice and to innovate on their own farms and in dairy communities.

Sarah, a dairy farmer and accredited mental health social worker, chose to study how different agricultural sectors across the world support their producers’ mental health, especially in a changing climate.

Lunch on a French farm

“My aim is to understand and share with Australia’s agricultural industries learnings that have been gained from my travels in relations to farmers’ mental health and wellbeing.”

“Currently, I’m studying how these can be implemented to support dairy farmers mental health in the North-East of Victoria so that they can continue to grow healthy dairy businesses while facing the challenge of climate change.”

Sarah and husband run The Hermitage Dairy Pty Ltd operation in the Kiewa Valley in north-east Victoria. It runs 500 Friesian cows over 1500 acres, to produce 4 million litres per year. The farm is located about 30 minutes from Wodonga, and within an area at risk of bushfires and flooding.

For some time, Sarah worked part time as a Natural Disaster Clinician as part of the Victoria Bushfire recovery – it gave her a nuanced understanding of the challenges farmers and rural communities face accessing support.

“You often hear there are not enough mental health services or support in small communities. However, I felt like there are services, but I wasn’t sure whether I lived in a community with lots of support or whether there was a disconnect on how people understand and access these.”

“Through the Nuffield, I have done a lot of research into this, and looking at other communities. What I have found is there are services, and a lot of mental health promotion. I see a disconnect within the community, a lack of knowledge about services outside of Lifeline and Beyond Blue.”

Lifeline is a free, 24-hour service for Australians experiencing emotional distress, while well publicised, its focus is crisis support and suicide prevention services. This may not be the most relevant service for someone experiencing less critical stress, depression or anxiety.

“The issue is a lot of people will say they used one service and didn’t get a good response. For example, for something like Lifeline you need to be in crisis, so if you aren’t in that boat then what service is there for you.”

“Someone might say, Lifeline didn’t work and end the journey. Whereas maybe instead they needed to talk to a therapist, counsellor or trusted person. We need to be educating people about all the different options around seeking help.”

Sarah and fellow scholars in Poland

Sarah believes mental health promotion is working, stigma is declining, and people have a better understanding of what poor mental health looks like. However, when mental health promoters come into a community, there is little talk about how to seek external support if needed.

“My Nuffield journey has helped me understand the importance of ensuring people get appropriate services. But we need to be doing more in the way of educating farmers,” she said.

“We’ve done well talking about mental health, now we need to let people know what kinds of services are available. Many counsellors and therapists do wonderful work – however, farmers can sometimes feel a disconnect if the counsellor doesn’t have a good understanding of life on the land.”

This idea of a more tailored approach was observed in New Zealand where Sarah learned about the nationwide wellbeing program Farmstrong and Rural Support Trust. Both orginsations work closely with each other, one focusing on mental health promotion and the other offering professional, tailored support for famers.

The people working for Rural Support Trust are often retired farmers who understand the highs and lows of farming. Others are farmers who also have another skill set such as being a psychologist.

“There is a lot of mental health training and professional development which means that they are equipped to support farmers. Importantly, they also have strong connections with many private psychologists and counsellors who can step in and support the farm if required.”

“Farmstrong is about mental health promotion, community events, online resources and they work closely with Rural Support Trust who have counsellors to link people to services. If you say you need help, they bring services to the farmer not the other way around – not too many services that do this, the services work in collaboration ensuring that the farmer get the support needed.”

Sarah holds a Master of Social Work and is an Accredited Mental Health Social Worker, both qualifications she gained before the Nuffield. Now that she has gained valuable global insight and conducted further research into her topic, Sarah has gained the confidence to establish her own counselling service.

Nuffield group in Ireland

“I know what it’s like as a farmer, what it’s like to live in a rural and farming community. It’s important for people to have the opportunity to chat with someone who understands their challenges firsthand, having experienced similar issues themselves.”

Sarah is halfway through her scholarship and set to fly to Europe later this year to visit the UK, Germany and the Netherlands to complete her learning.

“If someone had said to me a few years ago, you’re going to do a Nuffield, I would have laughed thinking I wasn’t well placed for it. However, I was always curious about it, and I have a supportive family who encouraged me to apply. I thought, do I what to be curious and frustrated or do I want to be curious and fulfilled.”

“It came down to, why not – I’m really interested in mental health and farmers and farming communities, Nuffield allows you to push your thinking and I wanted to do something rather than just thinking about it,” Sarah said.

“I’ve also met so many great people all over the world. I now have more friends and won’t be staying in too many hotels on future holidays, I’ll be staying with my fellow scholars. Like farming and agriculture, Nuffield is less about the science, it’s really all about the people, without people we wouldn’t have farming.”