On a Thursday night at the Kurow Hotel, what would you expect people to be chatting about?
Probably the weather, maybe stock prices – and almost definitely the Bledisloe Cup.
You might not expect to hear patrons at the country pub talk openly about suicide, emotions and mental health.
But that was exactly what was discussed when the Will to Live Speak Up tour came to town, drawing a crowd of about 100 people to the Kurow Hotel last Thursday night.
Will to Live was founded last year by agricultural worker Elle Perriam (21) after she was faced head on with New Zealand’s mental illness crisis. Her boyfriend, Will Gregory, took his own life in December 2017.
Miss Perriam said she was left with a lot of anger at how few support services there were for young rural people, especially men, and decided, in classic Kiwi fashion, to address the issue herself.
She set up Will to Live with the help of her two sisters – Kate and Sarah – and others passionate about increasing mental health awareness and services in rural areas.
Miss Perriam began fundraising for the Speak Up tour last year, and Kurow was the 13th event on her itinerary.
It was extra poignant for Miss Perriam, as Mr Gregory was working as a shepherd in the area at the time of his death – and was well-known and liked in the district.
Many who attended had known Mr Gregory personally.
“That was a bit hard, because this was the birthplace of Will to Live.”
The evening began with a “bark up”, led by Will to Live mascot Jess, a huntaway who was given to Miss Perriam by Mr Gregory, and was followed by guest speakers and a charity auction.
Miss Perriam said when she first came up with the Will to Live concept and wanted it to appeal to rural young males “it was a bit daunting – being a female and thinking people would be too ‘hard bastard’ to listen”.
“But people have been so attentive. You could have a pub full of 150 people and you could hear a pin drop.
“They are there and wanting to learn. Everyone has mental health just as much as physical health.”
As well as using the skills of Miss Perriam’s sisters – radio host Sarah is the master of ceremonies and Kate is a natural health practitioner – local speakers are lined up to share their own stories of mental illness.
“Next year we are thinking of making it more of a workshop tour and educating people about practical steps they can take for their wellbeing,” Miss Perriam said.
The support she had received and the response to the tour so far had been “overwhelming”, she said.
Miss Perriam did not know how exactly how much was raised from the Kurow evening, but said the average from each event was about $6000.
“When I was thinking about the Speak Up tour I knew I couldn’t do it alone, and getting some of those influential guys to spread their story has been key.”
Tekapo farm manager Harry Railton was one of those people.
On first impression, he is your typical high-country bloke, but Mr Railton said it was that image that he was trying to break down.
“Something needs to change – there is such an image around farming,” he said.
“Everyone wants to know what sort of truck you drive, or how many dogs you have, but there is more to life.
“You go to the pub and everyone is talking about work, and that is not a bad thing, but we need to be more open about our feelings.”
The messages being discussed were serious, but there was always room for a bit of that dry humour New Zealand’s rural population was renowned for, he said.
“You can’t be too serious all the time – do the important stuff well and have fun with the rest of it.”
Another speaker was Sam Robinson, who grew up on a farm near Methven.
He said his outward success initially hid his inner demons, battling depression since 2008.
For a long time, he kept to himself, which compounded the problem.
“I was head boy, in the first XV and first XI – on the outside it looked like I had it all.
“I was acting on cloud nine when I wasn’t – I didn’t want to be seen as struggling or failing and didn’t want to be judged.”
Mr Robinson wanted to share his story and be the person he wished had spoken out 10 years ago when he was struggling.
“The system is f****d, it [takes] eight weeks in Christchurch to get an appointment with a counsellor.
“We need to do more around education. I got taught about Pythagorean theorem at school and I haven’t used it once.
“If I got taught about how to talk about my feelings I am sure that would have helped a hell of a lot more.”
Young men could talk about almost everything, but struggled with having conversations around emotions, and he wanted that stigma to end, he said.
“So next time you are hanging out with a mate ask him ‘how are ya?’.