AARON THOMAS was hiding a secret that almost cost him his life.
The Binginwarri dairy sharefarmer had been battling depression for many years, but masked it with his community activities and alcohol.
It has cost him his marriage and meant he had to negotiate a new relationship with his young children.
“I lacked self respect,” said Mr Thomas, who was a nurse before he became a dairy farmer.
“As a nurse I saw people through trauma. I had the skills and advice for others, but I didn’t know what I was dealing with.”
Mr Thomas began as a farm worker, moved into the role of farm manager and for the next several years was sharefarming with Lisa and Paul Mumford, at their Binginwarri dairy farm.
Mr Thomas and his wife were building equity in the herd and had a clear plan to continue as sharefarmers in the medium term.
He was a finalist in the 2014 Farmer of the Year awards.
But the Mumfords were witnesses to both his marriage and his mental breakdowns, were trying to help and, when that didn’t work, were standing by to help him when he asked.
Mr Thomas admits he should have accepted the offers of help from his wife and employers, but was stubborn.
When he finally admitted he needed help, “I was dead inside. I was physically and emotionally spent and mentally exhausted,” Mr Thomas said.
“I was a shell of a person.”
Mr Mumford took him to a doctor and explained what was going on.
That story included Mr Thomas planning and attempting to take his own life.
Part of the problem of accepting help and admitting to being depressed, was Mr Thomas’ perception of himself within the community.
He was the bloke who turned up to help everywhere, at the drop of a hat.
He played a lot of team sport. He helped organise a lot of community activities.
“I was on a pillar in the community and I didn’t want people to know what was going on,” Mr Thomas said.
“That was a way of me disguising what was going on. It was also a subtle call for help.
“I kept my garden all right because I thought if people saw it was neglected, they’d know there was something going on.
“I was alcohol dependent and I drank for pain relief, but it was making me more depressed.”
For most of the first year after diagnosis, Mr Thomas was under the direct supervision of Paul and Lisa Mumford, who helped him manage his daily routine and responsibilities.
Three years later, he has a different outlook on life.
He wishes it did not depend on medication, but accepts it is necessary.
“I tried to go off medication, but that was a disaster,” Mr Thomas said.
“Three years on, I’m living a good, somewhat normal, life.
“The past 18 months have been really stable.”
As well as his three children, his employers Paul and Lisa Mumford are still integral in his life, and his counsellor is also his life coach.
He is building a new relationship with his ex-wife.
They co-parent their children, who live with one parent on a rotating weekly basis.
“When I was married, I wasn’t talking to my wife. I wasn’t doing anything I should have been doing in a marriage. I blocked Vanessa out,” Mr Thomas said.
“I now have an amazing support crew.
“I talk about my mental health.
“I don’t want anyone to feel as bad as I did.
“I was struggling just to stay alive.
“And the amount of energy it was taking up to put on a show and not let people know — that was exhausting.
“Tell people they are your go-to when you need help.
“Together as a crew, we can smash the stigma around talking about our mental health.”
He has switched his team sporting interests to road cycling and joined a local group of cyclists.
He also makes himself available to speak publicly about depression and mental health.
“Talking about it has kept me stable and focused,” Mr Thomas said.
“I share my story.
“And I ride regularly with a group of people who are also interested in cycling.
“I ride a few hundred kilometres very week.
“Both interests are part of my therapy, along with medication and counselling.”
Mr Thomas shares his story in a new calendar focused on Gippsland dairy farmers, talking about financial stresses, mental health and drought.
Mr Thomas will be part of a panel at the Australian Dairy Conference in February.
If you or someone you know needs help, contact your doctor or phone Lifeline on 131 114 or BeyondBlue on 1300 224 636.