Breaking the Silence: Stephen Hawken

By Charmayne Allison

As part of Mental Health Week, nine locals from Echuca-Moama and surrounds will share their stories.

Although he’s seen his fair share of hardship, Bamawm dairy farmer Stephen Hawken said it was the suffering of countless farmers around him which affected his mental health.

Now he’s encouraging other farmers to speak up about mental health, because he believes opening up is a strength, not a weakness.

This is his story.

Produced by Cath Grey and Charmayne Allison

LIKE countless farmers across the region, Bamawm’s Stephen Hawken knows the hopelessness of facing another day without rain, another month without money and another year buckling under the weight of ever-soaring water prices.

But it was witnessing the sheer despair of those around them that left his mental health in tatters, until he knew he had to seek help.

Before it was too late.

“So many (farmers) are battling hopelessness.

‘‘Because it doesn’t matter how hard they work today, it doesn’t matter how good the cows milk – there’s no way known they can make this work,” he said.

“It’s this feeling of being at the bottom of a well and you can’t climb up and the harder you try, the deeper the hole is getting on you.”

“My hometown has been decimated by a man-made drought.

“Watching family and friends suffer, you can see it in their eyes, you can hear it in their voice.

‘‘That’s probably what makes me suffer the most as a person.”

Although his struggles began after a messy divorce and his farm being devastated by floods in 2011 — Stephen said his mental health reached rock bottom last Christmas when he was suddenly estranged from his two middle children.

Always a fighter, he knew something was up when he started running on autopilot, his wife Cheryl largely taking over running the farm as he struggled to find purpose.

Stephen knew he needed help – so he reached out to a close friend who gave him a number to call.

“The one thing I couldn’t do was talk to my own wife,” Stephen said, tears in his eyes.

“It almost felt like an admission of weakness.

‘‘And it’s not, I don’t think this is a weak thing, I don’t think people who suffer from depression are weak at all.

“My wife had to be told eventually but I had to strike that first blow with somebody else.

‘‘And if that’s what you gotta do then that’s what you gotta do.”

Months down the track, Stephen is learning to care for his mental health, and he’s keeping an eye on farmers around him, watching for any warning signs.

“Reaching out for help is a sign of strength,” Stephen said.

“It shows you’re making a decision that you don’t want to be like this.

‘‘I don’t want to suffer, I don’t deserve to suffer.

“I’m a father, I’m a grandfather, I’m a husband, I’m a son, I’m a farmer – I’m all these things.

‘‘And I’m good at them. I have a lot to offer.”

If you or someone you know needs help now, call Lifeline on 13 11 14 or Beyond Blue on 1300 22 4636. If it becomes a crisis go immediately to the nearest hospital or phone 000.