Based on a sheep property near Worlds End, 2020 South Australian AgriFutures Rural Women’s Award winner Stephanie Schmidt has first-hand experience of the mental health struggles of those in rural communities. She first came to rural life through her farmer husband, whom she met while she was at university completing a degree in psychology. The pair bought two properties just prior to being hit by one of the worst droughts on record, while also suffering post-natal depression, dealing with significant stress and with little formal support. Through hard work, persistence and a commitment to caring for one another, she and her husband survived, and Stephanie remains relentlessly committed to sharing those tools with others. “I’ve found it’s incredibly important to combine my lived experience of the challenges of farming life with simple but effective strategies to improve our wellbeing, our relationships and even the effectiveness of our businesses.” She is happiest when playing outside with her three young sons and loves having worked alongside her husband to build a successful farming entreprise from the ground up.
When asked what concerned her about the health, safety and wellbeing of those in rural industries and communities, Stephanie recounted the impact of stress on couples through drought, family demands and the financial, emotional and physical pressures of running a farming entreprise. A combination of professional support, medication and making a consistent effort to appreciate and look after each other has helped them get through the tough times. “When my husband is really stressed, I have to remind myself to just stop and listen, and not try to problem solve the situation,” she said. She finds having conversations when there are no distractions – even if that’s in bed at night or on drives around the farm – makes it easier to connect. If people aren’t listening, she recommends finding different ways of talking about it or stopping to listen to them first. “Trust yourself. You have so much knowledge… Most likely, those around you will listen to you.”
How would you describe yourself in three words?
Authentic, kind and determined.
Tell us something interesting about yourself...
I grew up in Adelaide with a supermarket at the end of my street, met my farmer (now husband) while studying International Studies at uni and soon transferred to studying psychology when I saw the need in the bush. I now live on our farm at Worlds End with my husband and three young sons.
I wear many hats… mum, wife, psychologist, farmer, bookkeeper, sheep driver, meal runner etc. Life is definitely interesting, and life on a busy farm has taught me a lot about being flexible, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.
What achievements are you most proud of?
I was fortunate to be named the winner of the 2020 South Australian AgriFutures Rural Women’s Award. I’m so excited to be bringing my project to life, making psychological skills and knowledge accessible to farmers, farming families and rural communities.
We have endured three years of drought and I’ve found it’s incredibly important to combine my lived experience of the challenges of farming life with simple but effective strategies to improve our wellbeing, our relationships and even the effectiveness of our businesses.
What makes you truly happy?
Playing outside with my boys – feeling the grass under my toes, the sun on my back, playing footy or even just sitting and watching them play.
What do you love the most about being a rural woman?
The challenge and the opportunities. I think if I’d stayed in my city ‘bubble’, my life would have taken a fairly ‘normal’ course. However, my husband and I have built our farm from the ground up, together.
I’ve been able to take on extra opportunities within our communities, as well as in leadership roles for rural women. While this may have been an option had I stayed in the city, I think the challenges that we have faced along the way have made me more determined to do what’s most important to me.
Tell us about a time when you felt worried about your own or someone else’s health, safety or wellbeing.
Our dangers have been the creeping impacts of stress, drought and managing the pressures of running a farm, a family and a relationship while trying to keep them all happy and healthy.
Personally, after seven months of severe sleep deprivation after our first son was born, I developed post-natal depression. We had minimal support around us and my husband was busy trying to make the best of a good year on the farm. I found my way out of post-natal depression with anti-depressant medication, seeing a psychologist and putting in place some daily practices like practicing being mindful, gratitude and asking for and accepting help. However, having a small child who didn’t sleep well for most of the first four years of his life took its toll on both me and my husband. A few years later, we found ourselves in the worst drought on record. We had bought two properties at the start of 2018, just before the drought started to hit hard. The pressure of raising a young family, growing a farm and facing the uncertainty of drought and financial stress has had a significant impact on us both over the years.
In October 2020, when our new baby Darcy was only 3 months old, I realised once again that I was starting to experience post-natal depression, though this time also experiencing post-natal anxiety. I felt a constant need to be doing something, and frustration that I could get nothing done – even though I knew my expectations of myself were completely unrealistic. I got to a point where I had no tolerance for my kids and was feeling pretty overwhelmed by everything. We were heading into a hectic harvest so I made a really conscious decision that I had to look after myself first – which meant going back to my GP, starting anti-depressant medication again, linking in with my psychologist and post-natal support through Perinatal Anxiety & Depression Australia, as well as really consciously stepping back from a lot of things I was doing – putting my own project on hold, stepping back from social media and putting an out of office response on our emails! This all helped to get me back on track and to get us through a harvest full of stress and breakdowns. It also meant that my husband and I were able to have conversations about how we could do things differently, so that he can support me in the relatively quieter times on the farm to pursue my passion projects, and how we can continue to work towards finding some kind of flow in work/life/farm etc – all the while making sure we are all as healthy as we can be.
What practical things did - or could - you or someone else do to prevent yourself or someone else from getting hurt?
We may not talk about it directly, but over the years we have really chosen, as a couple, to make an effort in looking after ourselves and each other. What does this look like? Talking as a family about what we are grateful or thankful for that day. Making sure we practice appreciating each other and expressing that. Taking time to step back and put ourselves in each other’s shoes.
We each have a difficult road in our own ways and it’s really important for us to remember what things are like for the other. This is probably especially important, yet especially tricky, during stressful periods like seeding, harvest, shearing or when a new baby arrives.
I try to practice gratitude every day, particularly when I’m more stressed, to counter my brain’s natural negative bias. This is a really simple practice of writing three things down each day that I’m grateful for. Some days I have to work hard to think of something, other days it comes automatically. It’s also a way of remembering the good. It can be really simple stuff, like watching my son smile when we play with bubbles, seeing my husband when he gets home from a long day, or maybe even just chocolate!
We have both reached pretty low places in terms of not coping, and it has taken work and understanding on both sides to come back together as a team and make sure we keep on supporting each other. When my husband is really stressed, I have to remind myself to just stop and listen, and not try to problem solve the situation. I have to make sure I take my psychologist hat off and put my wife and friend hat on, and take the time to listen to what’s going on.
Is there a time, place or scenario when your partner or those you work or spend time with are more willing to make changes to the way the work is done, or are more open to making safer, healthier choices?
We probably end up having a lot of our conversations around how we’re going when we get into bed, which probably isn’t the ideal time, but it means that we are not distracted by screens or kids and can pay attention to each other.
Otherwise, it can also be when we’re going on drives to check sheep and crops, having a chat about the farm and then moving to how each of us are going, as well.
If you could give any advice to another rural woman about health, safety and/or wellbeing in rural industries and communities, about influencing change in business - or just in general - what would it be?
I think for rural women, especially those on farms, it’s really important to recognise that we can’t do it all. That it isn’t a failure of ours not to be able to do it all, more that we are trying to achieve the impossible when we do! There is time to do it, but we can’t do it all at once. It’s been really hard for me to recognise that, but I think recognising that it is OK not to do EVERYTHING, has been one of the most important steps for myself in getting better. Also realising that I have to have my own non-negotiables for myself. No-one else cares if I drink a glass of lemon water, or that I do sun salutations or journalling in the morning – but I know that if I manage to do those things and create a sense of rhythm and groundedness for myself, I can then move through whatever the rest of the day throws at me.
Furthermore, trust yourself. You have so much knowledge in your own way. Most likely, those around you will listen to you, but if they’re not listening, try some different ways of talking about it – or take the time to listen to them first and just be present listening to what’s going on before jumping into problem solving mode.