Why the Duke of Sussex’s personal appeal on depression strikes a chord in rural Australia

In the rural area of Australia visited by the Duke and Duchess of Sussex on Wednesday, the farmland has been parched by a severe drought in the past year – but some of the worst scars are not always easy to recognise.

For many farmers and their families, the long struggle to battle through the tough conditions can lead to a “dark place”, as dairy farmer Steve Germon described it earlier this year.

“Between the low milk price, not being able to feed my cattle properly and seeing all my hard work slip away, I nearly came to suicide twice, as ­recently as 10 months ago,” Mr Germon told Sydney’s Sunday Telegraph newspaper.

Rural suicide rates in Australia are about 50 per cent higher than in the cities, with a rate of 15 per 100,000 people. The problem has been blamed on a range of factors including the remoteness, lack of opportunities and  inadequate mental health services.

But there has also been  a stigma surrounding mental health problems which has prevented people seeking help or talking about their suffering – and it was this challenge that Prince Harry tried to squarely address during his visit to Dubbo.

“You are one huge community, and with that comes an unparalleled level of internal support and understanding," he said in a speech.

 “All you need to do is to ask for it and your neighbour, your peer, your fellow farmer is literally right around the corner.  You are all the toughest people out there, the most persistent, the ones who can weather the storm or the drought. But you need to know that part of being strong and tough is having the courage to ask for help when you need it.”

Prince Harry would know.

As he revealed last year in an interview with The Telegraph, he struggled with mental health problems and sought counselling after the death of his mother. He said he “shut down all his emotions” and suffered for years before finally seeking help.

Speaking to the crowd in Dubbo, he said:  “You must not silently suffer. You are all in this together and if I may speak personally, we are all in this together. Asking for help was one of the best decisions that I ever made. You will be continually be amazed about how life changes for the better once you put your hand up.”

Australian authorities have struggled to grapple with the high rates of depression and suicide, particularly among youth and residents of rural areas. In recent months, counsellors have been dispatched across rural areas to meet with farmers in paddocks, sheds and kitchens  tables.

The New South Wales state government last month announced plans to fund an additional 20 counsellors. 

"It’s the face-to-face discussions and the face-to-face counselling that is the most effective, so  any initiative in that direction is welcome,” said Gary Bentley, a counsellor with the charity Rural Aid.

"One rainfall doesn’t end the drought — the physical recovery will take a long time and certainly the psychological recovery will take even longer."

But some rural residents expressed concern that the relief had been insufficient.

Pauline Carrigan, a farmer whose son Will Carrigan took his own life at the age of 24, told ABC News: 

"Everyone needs support sometime in their life and for rural New South Wales and rural Australia generally, we do not have support in place for when we need help with wellbeing… While I applaud them sending in the 20 counsellors, can I ask, please, that they never leave again.”

Not surprisingly, Prince Harry’s candid speech in Dubbo was well-received.

He later met with young Aboriginal students, asking: "How easy is it for you guys to talk about your mental health?"

When nobody said a word, he added: "It’s that easy then?"