Growing connections for wellbeing
Resilience skills for rural communities
Stephanie Schmidt is passionate about improving mental health support for farmers and rural communities. The recipient of the 2020 South Australian Agrifutures Rural Women’s Award, Stephanie has developed a resilience program made specifically for farming couples, families and individuals, with the aim of growing psychological flexibility throughout the rural sector.
Having grown up in Prospect, Stephanie started a double degree in Arts and International Studies at the University of Adelaide straight after high school. It was while working part-time at Hindley Street bar the Woolshed on Hindley, that a chance meeting with her now husband, Simon, put Stephanie on the path towards becoming a farmer and clinical psychologist.
“Simon was from a farming background and used to come down to Adelaide on the weekends,” Stephanie said. “He used to tell me that the best part about working for yourself on the farm was that you could take time off whenever you want, but the most time he has ever spent away from the farm since we met is those weeks when he was coming down to Adelaide when we were first dating.”
Stephanie was a couple of years into her Arts degree before she focused on psychology as her chosen career path – one that would provide work opportunities in the regions. She completed a Bachelor of Health Sciences (Honours in Psychology) at the University of Adelaide, and then went on to complete a Master of Psychology (Clinical) at Flinders University. “I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do when I started university and tried a number of different subjects in the first year of my Arts degree. University gave me the flexibility to expand my knowledge, and the options to work out what interested me.”
During her Master’s degree, Stephanie undertook a placement in Clare with what was then the Midnorth Division of Rural Medicine (now Country and Outback Health). She was offered a role there after graduation and worked with the service as a rural clinical psychologist for seven years. “Working in a rural health service allowed me to work with a wide range of clients – from kids right through to older adults, as there is often no other specialist services available to refer them on to.”
Today, Stephanie and Simon are raising their three young sons on the family’s sheep and cropping farm at World’s End in the mid-north of SA near Burra. Recognising that she had a unique perspective as a clinical psychologist, as well as a farmer, Stephanie started her own business – Cultivate Psychology – in 2019. “We’d been through several years of drought, so I had lived experience of the pressures and ongoing stress experienced by rural and farming communities.”
While the need for mental health support in rural areas has always been there, a growing awareness of the warning signs and the support available, as well as external pressures such as drought, floods and bushfires, has increased the need. The constant challenge of not having enough formal services to provide mental health support in country areas exacerbates the problem
Stephanie said the impact of COVID-19 provided different challenges. “Rural communities were possibly a little more protected from some of the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic than people in metropolitan areas. Farmers are used to being isolated and having a bit more space, and perhaps are better equipped to deal with uncertainties and adapting to change.”
One of the main effects has been on community support networks such as local sporting clubs and other social groups. As founder of the Goyder Country Women's Association branch in 2018, Stephanie knows the importance of informal support networks that create a sense of connection and community to individual wellbeing. “That’s often the main source of social connection in rural communities, so when people realised sports had been cancelled for the year, that had a big impact.”
Stephanie has also taken a community-driven approach when it comes to providing mental health support for the rural sector. She wants to equip people with simple strategies to manage stress and adversity every day, so that when crisis hits or the stresses build up, they already have the toolkit to cope better on a day-to-day level. “I’m focussing on a preventative approach, building skills from the bottom up, rather than just trying to meet the need at the pointy end. It’s important to find ways to strengthen both community resilience and to help people to look after their individual wellbeing.”
Winning the Agrifutures SA Rural Women’s Award in March 2020 has allowed Stephanie to kick-start her ACTforAg program. Based on Acceptance and Commitment Training concepts, it seeks to provide farmers and rural communities with the resilience and flexibility to adapt to challenges outside their control. “The Award included a $10,000 bursary from Westpac which enabled me to develop a structured pilot program of three 90-minute online sessions supported by Country SA Primary Health Network.” The pilot program was well received and Stephanie has been adapting and further developing the program into shorter sessions which can be delivered either face to face or via Zoom, complemented by a toolkit of resources that participants can draw on as needed.
“My plan for 2021 is to create an online platform so that participants can attend the brief workshop, then learn additional tools online. I also hope to grow the project more strategically and begin working with other organisations who work with farmers to equip them to share the skills and knowledge in their own networks.” Stephanie also has to remind herself to put her knowledge into practice at times. After the birth of her third son last year, she found herself juggling too much and ended up with post-natal depression when he was a few months old.
“I’m focussing on a preventative approach, building skills from the bottom up, rather than just trying to meet the need at the pointy end. It’s important to find ways to strengthen both community resilience and to help people to look after their individual wellbeing.”Stephanie Schmidt
“I had to remember that you need to look after yourself first before you can put energy into other things and accept that it’s ok to ask for help if you need to. Women are told they can do anything – which is true. But that doesn’t mean they have to do everything.”
By recognising where her strengths lie, sharing the load, and building a strong team around her, Stephanie is finding the right balance and taking her program to new levels of success.
Story by Keryn Lapidge
Photos by Meaghan Coles