Rural Aid’s Mental Health and Wellbeing Team
Rural Aid is dedicated to improving the mental health outcomes of rural Australia. The Rural Aid Mental Health and Wellbeing team is made up of 15 experienced counsellors who are based in rural towns across the country.
Rural Aid counsellors offer free, confidential support to farmers and their families.
Rural Aid’s counsellors are trained to help their communities with a range of services, from early intervention and health promotion, right through to treatment using evidence-based interventions. Rural Aid’s Mental Health and Wellbeing Team prefer to visit farmers on their properties, meaning our counsellors are often (happily) called on to fix fences or drench sheep while they’re having a chat.
Rural Aid recently made its biggest investment into regional mental health to date, announcing in September 2021, that its counselling service was expanding from five to 15 professionals. The ten new counsellors are based in locations that Rural Aid hasn’t previously employed a counsellor, including West and South Australia. Rural Aid will spend $3.75 million over the next three years to help address the abysmal gaps in regional healthcare.
Meet Rural Aid’s counsellors:
New South Wales
Liz Bellette-Stubbs is based in the beautiful Bega Valley in New South Wales.
Surviving the Black Summer bushfires strengthened Liz’s resolve to address gaps in regional healthcare. After evacuating her home, and then going on to serve her community with her local Rotary Club, Liz knew “people were going to be in need after the fires”. She wasted no time seeking and securing a counselling role.
Liz is passionate about supporting the family unit in a counselling setting.
“I encourage men to utilise an avenue of support to give voice to their fears, stressors and concerns. And I make sure that women are supported and that their issues are validated by a caring counsellor,” Liz says.
She draws on her teaching background to make sure the youngest members of the family are heard too.
“I utilise my skills to reach children who take on adult roles on the farm, where they can witness stress and distress. I listen, so they can voice their concerns, and teach them coping strategies which will make their liglves easier.”
Liz has a deep connection to the bush and to the sea. Her nephews come from a long line of fisherman and she’s seen the “industry thrive and now struggle to survive”.
Heidi Gray lives in Northern New South Wales and frequents the Armidale, Inverell, Glen Innes and Warialda districts.
Heidi was driven to pursue counselling after seeing the drought cripple the Northern Tablelands community.
“It was just so sad to see the effect the drought was having. It was really overwhelming,” Heidi says.
Heidi is passionate about reducing the stigma surrounding mental health in the regions.
“I like to keep things casual and very person-centered. I believe you can’t underestimate the power of conversation and giving someone the space to feel comfortable and safe to talk about whatever is on their mind is important,” Heidi says.
Heidi enjoys helping farmers find wellbeing- whatever that looks like for the individual.
“Often, I put it down to having a better night’s sleep at the end of the day.”
Gary Bentley knows the Hunter Valley and its farmers inside and out. Gary’s considered and compassionate approach to counselling has seen him foster lasting, powerful relationships with countless farmers.
“Farming is a tough life, made tougher in recent years by cascading disasters,” Gary says.
“Rural Aid is doing its bit to help meet the needs of what has long been a neglected, and even forgotten, but none-the-less essential community. It’s rewarding to be part of that.”
Gary believes there is no one-size-fits-all answer when it comes to mental wellbeing and draws on a range of trusted therapies and life lessons to help farmers find their way through difficult times.
Glenda Carter calls New South Wales’ Riverina district home. Glenda is proud to work for Rural Aid, and enjoys visiting her farmers on their properties.
“I use a range of strategies in supporting the person to be involved in making decisions about their own life by listening to their words, understanding their thoughts and emotions in a non-judgmental and caring environment,” Glenda says.
Glenda works hard to build relationships with a network of support agencies like the National Recovery and Resilience Agency, Suicide Prevention Australia and Australian Red Cross.
Glenda is passionate about addressing the increased levels of distress in rural communities, due in part to challenges faced by young people and their families.
“With the significant shift in social and economic landscape of Rural Australia our young people are facing economic hardship, employment issues, relationship breakdown and loneliness.”
Sue Jensen is based in Geelong and visits farms from the Macedon Ranges in the north, way out west to the South Australia border.
Sue’s previous work as a teacher inspired her to enter the wellbeing domain.
“I am passionate about addressing health gaps in rural and regional Victoria such as isolation, restricted access to health care, lower educational attainment and poor infrastructure,” Sue says.
Sue enjoys helping family units tighten their bonds, allowing them to tackle challenges together.
“If there is drought on the farm, it is affecting the whole family.”
Sue has a deep affinity for the bush. She can often be spotted with homemade biccies and a thermos of tea on her farm visits.
“Rural Aid combines a passion for the love of my country and the people who are so connected to it, to the work I do as a skilled and experienced counsellor.”
Darren Devlin has a strong connection to the Gippsland bush, through his work as a Rural Aid counsellor and through his volunteer efforts; Darren devoted 16 years to the Victorian Country Fire Authority.
Darren enjoys helping others live a quality life.
“I believe that we are all trying to be the best we can and live the best lives we can with the tools we have. However, most of us have either been given the wrong tools or the tools we have been given are broken or in need of repair,” Darren says
Darren believes a preventative approach to health is an important factor in Rural Aid’s work.
“Rural Aid not only provides for the physical and emotional needs of primary producers and their families following disaster, but Rural Aid is also taking a proactive approach to developing individual and community resilience.”
Rod Galvin calls the beautiful north west corner of Victoria home. He currently lives in Mildura, but grew up an hour west of Orange, NSW.
Rod’s friends and family had been urging him to become a counsellor for years, but ultimately it was a Landline episode on male suicide rates that prompted Rod to become a counsellor.
“For me, the episode and statistics really hurt. It was clear that men are doing it so tough that they don’t know where to turn,” Rod says.
Rod believes his own experience overcoming challenges helps him relate to others. Rod freely shares his lived experiences of overcoming severe depression in his teens; divorce and remarriage; and the death of his parents.
Rod considers himself quite the handyman and loves helping out with jobs on the farm when having a chat.
Marg McKay is a valued member of the Wodonga community. She visits farmers from Towong to Murrindindi to Bendigo. Growing up surrounded by sheep, Marg was later inspired to own a small property of her own and has dabbled in shearing and wool classing. These days, Marg leaves farming duties to her cattle-loving son.
Marg prides herself on being a wonderful listener. She’s great at helping people accept what they cannot change, and guiding them to a brighter future.
Her experience helping farmers and their families in times of crisis has led her to be a passionate advocate for better health services in the bush.
“Rural communities suffer from the lack of services to address many types of health issues, especially mental health. Waiting lists, if you can get onto one, are massive and the need is so great,” Marg says.
Jeffrey Grace-Jones has worked as a counsellor all over regional Australia, but his heart and home lie in South Australia.
Jeffrey is based in Port Augusta and has a strong affinity to the land. He grew up on farms in New Zealand and more recently, has experience running wineries.
Jeffrey is proud to play a role in helping farmers overcome their challenges.
“There is a need for counsellors in rural areas to reduce the stigma and myths around mental health and to enable those doing it tough to access assistance,” Jeffrey says.
Jeffrey has faced bushfires and helped fight the demons that can follow them too. He was caught up in the Black Saturday fires in Victoria, evacuating twice to safety. Jeffrey has also helped Kangaroo Island farmers with their bushfire recovery.
Jeffrey believes it’s helpful to treat mental wellbeing the same as any other medical condition.
“If you’ve got a tv remote with a flat battery, no matter how much you push all the buttons, nothing is going to happen. You need to recharge the batteries.”
Sukriti Chaudhary is based in Berri and visits farmers in the Murray, Mallee and Riverland.
Sukriti loves helping others bring out their best version of themselves. She values the genuine relationships built with farmers and their families, and enjoys watching those connections grow.
“Unlike many rural organizations that focuses one key service, Rural Aid provides a number of services with little hassle,” Sukriti says.
“The opportunity to work with community and famers on their farms, rather than providing them assistance from behind a screen is a great experience. The dedication, thoughtfulness and alignment of values, is what attracted me to work at Rural Aid.”
Sukriti takes a holistic approach to counselling and encourages her farmers to take the lead in their own growth and ability development.
Roger Hitchcock is a down-to-earth counsellor with deep roots in West Australia’s farming history. Roger is based in Wagin and calls Narrogin home. Roger knows the wheatbelt like the back of his hand. He’s also spent time working in remote parts of the NT.
“Living in regional West Australia, I know the on-ground services are sparse. I hope I am the person that when locals need help with their current situation, I can assist them face to face, which we country people prefer,” Roger says.
“As a trained counsellor I will ensure that I will adapt to what the individual needs and I will listen and walk along aside you. I will never judge anyone.”
Roger has experience dealing with the aftermath of natural disasters, and recently spent six weeks visiting farmers impacted by Cyclone Seroja.
Gome Simfukwe looks after the Northam and Merredin regions of West Australia. He first became a counsellor after undergoing his own wellbeing journey.
“I discovered the transformative power of feeling truly seen and accepted, warts and all, in a counselling setting,” Gome says.
Gome has previously worked in the alcohol and other drugs field, and has experience helping others through trauma.
He believes farmers’ challenges are often compounded by their environment.
“Not just because of the vulnerability to the elements but also because of their isolation and lack of access to appropriate support. Having an organization like Rural Aid come in and say we’re here to walk alongside you through any issues you may be facing, makes such a difference.”
Lisa Brinton calls the Ipswich region home. Lisa has a strong affinity for life on the land after growing up surrounded by sheep and dairy cows in the sprawling New Zealand hills.
Lisa’s driving force is to help people reach their goals for a better life. She’s proud to work with Rural Aid to offer counselling services to communities that have fallen through the cracks.
“We reach out to those who have no access to counselling services,” Lisa says.
Lisa has experience across a wide range of life events and challenges and is especially passionate about guiding others through grief and bereavement.
Cheryl Calder lives in Gladstone but travels all over Central Queensland to visit farmers on their properties.
“Farmers often do not have the accessibility or flexibility to engage in support for their mental health, as those of us who can, sometimes take for granted,” Cheryl says.
Cheryl describes her job as a privilege and enjoys developing genuine connections with farmers.
She has a special interest in applying creative therapies, from a trauma informed approach, to support strengths and improve resilience.
“As a qualified, experienced, registered counsellor, the process of helping people work through their challenges and find meaning in life is something I am passionate about and deeply value.”
Colette Turner takes care of Rural Aid’s many farmers in the Darling Downs region. From her base in Toowoomba, Colette visits farms around Roma, St George and Goondiwindi.
Colette helps her farmers recognise behaviour patterns that can be detrimental.
“There’s the mentality in the country that you just have to ‘get on it with it’. But sometimes, ‘getting on with it’ just won’t work,” Collette says.
“If people bottle their emotions down, it becomes like a volcano that’s going to erupt.”
Colette believes everyone deserves access to quality health care, no matter their location.
“People in regional and rural communities deserve the same opportunities to access support, knowledge and information regarding their mental wellbeing as people living in major cities and highly populated areas.”
Mental Health and Wellbeing Team Management
Lauren Stracey is an experienced and passionate psychologist who expertly manages Rural Aid’s team of counsellors from her Sydney base. Lauren spent her formative years riding horses as a stable-hand. The hours spent on horseback sparked a deep connection; Lauren now feels happiest in the bush.
Lauren believes everyone has the right to be listened to and supported, no matter who they are, or where they are coming from. Lauren says the health gap between city and country folk is unacceptable and is committed to her role in bridging the divide.
“The challenges that some rural communities have faced are heartbreaking. It is such a privilege to support rural folks’ natural grit, improve mental wellbeing, and to try to change some of the culture around seeking help when you’re doing it tough,” Lauren says.
Lauren can often be spotted sitting round the fire with a farmer or having a cuppa on their couch.
Kelly Hoad is an accomplished social worker with decades of experience in the mental health space. Kelly skilfully juggles different schedules and states to guide the remotely-based team of Rural Aid counsellors through their vital work.
Kelly is based in Sydney and is fiercely passionate about ensuring every Aussie has access to mental health services.
“Let’s not just start the conversation in rural Australia, but keep it going by providing education, awareness and support where and when it’s needed,” Kelly says.
Kelly encourages farmers to approach their wellbeing the same as they would their physical health.
“We don’t expect to go the gym and lift a heavy weight on our first visit. When practicing a technique like mindfulness, a little time each day allows us to strengthen our inner resources.”