Joe urges farmers to talk about mental health

By Jeanette Severs

GETTING THROUGH tough times on the farm was the focus of dairy farmer Joe Meggetto’s presentation at the Climate Risk in Agriculture conference, held at Warragul in June.

Mr Meggetto, who runs a 250-head self-replacing split-calving milking herd on 225 ha at Warragul, has had depression for an estimated 22 years. At one time he carried a couple of bullets in his pocket every day. It was only recently he sought help from his GP.

He now speaks openly about his depression, hoping to encourage other men to speak up and get help. From the audience reaction at the conference, his approach engages other men and women.

Mr Meggetto bought his first dairy farm in 1991, then leased his parents’ farm from 1994 as a turnout block, when his dad, Mario, retired. More recently he added 121 ha of neighbouring country to the dairy farm.

He milks the Friesian-Holstein herd in a 15-a-side herringbone dairy. He cuts his own pasture silage and hay, aiming each year to fill three pits with silage cut off 57ha; another 300–350 rolls of silage; and in a good season, 350–550 round bales of hay.

“Silage and hay is money in the bank. At the moment, I’m feeding out four-year-old hay,” Mr Meggetto said.

“I can milk more cows but I’d sooner conserve pasture for hay and silage production.”

He keeps pasture growing through dry summers with irrigation licences on two dams — one 18 Ml and another 48 Ml. His business focus is on growing production by 10 to 15 per cent annually and increasing fat solids in the milk — to this end he started joining 50 per cent of the herd to Jersey semen.

When you look around the farm, the animals are healthy and curious, the machinery is clean and modern, sheds and fences are strong and straight, laneways are well maintained. It looks like a typical dairy farm.

Mario continues to work daily on Mr Meggetto’s dairy farm. Initially, it was Mario who saw much of Mr Meggetto’s anger.

Michelle Meggetto said she would know what mood her husband was in, because Mario would drop in and recount his day.

“If he was really bad at home, everyone copped his attitude,” Mrs Meggetto said.

Initially she thought his anger was part of his personality, but she realised it had changed him.

“I knew something was wrong, but he wasn’t listening to me,” she said.

Mrs Meggetto attended counselling and spoke to friends and family. She tried to protect their children from her husband’s anger. Eventually, she realised he was lonely, even though Mr Meggetto employed a farm worker and engaged with his father every day.

“I worked out he was lonely and afraid of being alone,” Mrs Meggetto said.

“He wanted people to ask him ‘how are you?’ He didn’t know what I was seeing or why he was doing what he was doing.”

At one point, his brother intervened.

“I told my brother I was carrying a couple of bullets in my pocket,” Mr Meggetto said.

“I would go down the back paddock to feed the cows and I’d sit in the tractor and cry.”

The day he told his brother about the bullets, at afternoon milking Mr Meggetto had visitors — local policemen dropped in to inquire how he was going. His brother took away most of the guns from the farm. Mr Meggetto tried counselling but struggled to find someone he could connect to.

“It’s not one-size-fits-all. You have to find a counsellor who understands you. I want to talk to someone who understands the dairy industry,” Mr Meggetto said.

“Half the counsellors out there don’t know what agriculture is.

“I was lonely. Farming is very isolated.

“A couple of times I phoned a helpline and got an answering machine. That’s not a solution. When someone makes that phone call, they want to talk to a person.”

But it took a few more years before Mr Meggetto realised he needed help. Mrs Meggetto asked his best man — another farmer — to speak to him.

“I started crying. I was so angry at home. I’d yell at Michelle and the kids, taking it out on them when it’s got nothing to do with them. I thought Michelle was ready to leave and take the kids. I knew I had to do something,” Mr Meggetto said.

He took himself to see his local GP and admitted to having suicidal thoughts and talked about being angry and his high-risk behaviour. Since that day, Mr Meggetto has been on anti-depression medication. Sometimes he asks the doctor if he can stop.

“I always tell him I’m feeling good and can I go off the medication. The GP says, no, we’ll keep on it,” Mr Meggetto said.

“I still have down days and weeks, but I’m coping better. I still think of suicide sometimes — hopefully one day I won’t think of it at all.

“Seeing my GP was probably one of the best moves I ever made. I’m not cured, but I’ve learned and I’m still learning to manage depression and my life.

“I was diagnosed suicidal and what scares me is who would have found me — they don’t deserve that.”

Mrs Meggetto now knows the signs to look for.

“His tolerance drops and he’s not as talkative. It’s still a challenge for him to share his thoughts and feelings,” she said.

A couple of years ago, Mr Meggetto participated in a local calendar initiative to highlight mental health and depression. He also started talking openly about his journey. He has some ideas about how the dairy industry could help farmers.

“Dairy processors should have a field officer with mental health training, who farmers can contact,” he said.

“It’s about having someone available who knows dairy farming.

“Men also need to get better at picking up the telephone and asking, how are you?

“Since I opened up about it, I’ve had a good mate admit he’s depressed too; and he went to the GP and is going well.

“I want the message to get across, that it’s okay to seek and get help. This condition is very common.

“A bit of medication goes a long way to feeling better.”

• Anyone needing help can contact Lifeline on 131 114.