Ardmona’s Ivan Lister supporting farmers since 2002

By Ash Witoslawski

For 16 years, Ivan Lister has been sitting down for a cuppa, walking through paddocks or strolling along river banks to support farmers’ mental health needs.

Mr Lister began working as a rural outreach worker in 2003, during a prolonged drought period which continued until 2010.

Concerns about the ongoing stress on farming families began to mount for health services in Violet Town and Benalla and the need for outreach became more apparent.

‘‘They thought the best way to do it was to have someone to go out and talk to the farming families where they were,’’ Mr Lister said.

‘‘Farmers aren’t going to rock up to an office and say ‘I think I’m depressed’ — it’s just not going to happen.’’

Mr Lister’s role is currently funded by Benalla Rural City Council two days a week, and usually involves visiting an average of five families a day.

More than one third of his clients are referral-based, and this number has grown across the years.

The rest of his time is spent cold-calling people or making repeat visits, spending time with those who continue to need support.

He said this year’s dry conditions had created a great need for his services.

‘‘What I hear now for next year is that water is a huge issue,’’ he said.

‘‘I see dams around now with no water.’’

Mr Lister said it was important to understand the highs and lows experienced by farming families.

‘‘I think that farming is a great lifestyle,’’ he said.

‘‘I think it’s a great industry — but it’s all got to work.

‘‘They (farmers) need rain at the right time and they need money.’’

He said there was also growing concern regarding feed for next year.

‘‘Farmers tell me there is hardly any seed — where are they going to get the seed from?’’ he said.

‘‘And then you’ve got a lot of the feed going to NSW for the drought relief.

‘‘We shouldn’t have got to this stage in the drought.’’

With the current conditions causing havoc locally and interstate, Mr Lister said there was a need for more outreach workers.

‘‘People keep saying to me: ‘What are we going to do if this dry keeps going?’

‘‘‘You’re going to be run off your feet’ they are saying.’’

Mr Lister said drought conditions often involved referrals from women worried about their husbands.

‘‘The husband would say things like: ‘there’s nothing wrong with me, I’m okay, we don’t have to do that (get help)’,’’ he said.

‘‘I’d even hear blokes saying about other blokes: ‘Get on with it, man up’ — all this sort of stuff. But, sorry, manning up won’t do it because depending on how severe your mental health issue may be, that will be controlling you.

‘‘If you expect anybody to pick up the tractor and get going with their normal life, it’s very difficult.’’

Mr Lister said a contributing factor was that farmers often worked in isolation.

‘‘Even for a farmer to put some flash clothes on and go into town to do anything is a huge issue,’’ he said.

‘‘Often the message will go to the partner or wife: ‘When you go into town, can you do this?’ Because they don’t want to go.’’

Mr Lister, 72, finds his age and — in many cases — being a male helps create conversations.

‘‘I do a bit of research so I’ve got a bit of a plan and take a look at what is going on, on the way to the farm,’’ he said.

‘‘There is no time limit on that plan. I sit there for as long as it takes.

‘‘That could go from half to three hours and it’ll all come out at the last minute.

‘‘As I’ve driven out, I’ve thought, ‘just imagine if I didn’t have the experience just to stay there and actually hear it out’.’’

Whether at the saleyards, down the street or at sporting events, Mr Lister is always open to hearing from concerned community members and helping them in their mental health journey.

This community spirit and longevity in his role allows Mr Lister to cut through a lot of red tape in the system and provide direct links and services with GPs, counselling organisations and Centrelink support, among others.

‘‘My role allows me to stay consistently with whoever I need to stay with,’’ he said.

‘‘I’m lucky because most of the clinics keep one time slot a week spare in case I ring.’’

■If this story has raised personal issues or emotions, phone Lifeline Australia on 131 114 or beyondblue on 1300 224 636. You can also phone Ivan Lister on 0474 501 406.

Reaching heart of matter

Ivan Lister’s personable attitude and direct approach has helped hundreds of people tackle their mental health issues.

Thinking back over the years, he remembers getting a call from a bloke who asked him to visit his shearing shed for a chat.

‘‘He said, ‘You don’t know me, but I’ve heard of you’,’’ Mr Lister said.

‘‘I got to the shed and I remember looking out the shearing shed window thinking how hot it was.

‘‘We started talking about the weather but I cut to the chase pretty quickly.’’

Mr Lister said the man started sharing his belief that he was suffering from undiagnosed anxiety.

‘‘I asked if he’d been to a doctor recently and he said ‘yes’.

‘‘He said: ‘What I do is, when I get to a doctor I’m going to tell them about my anxiety — but I can’t and I tell them something else like sore back, injury, migraine’.’’

Mr Lister acted quickly and with permission called a doctor and set up an appointment immediately to receive a formalised diagnosis and medication.

He said interactions like this were not uncommon, including instances in which a person called up concerned about a partner but it was actually the caller who was suffering from mental health concerns.

Miepoll beef and sheep farmer John Kelly first met Mr Lister several years ago after an incident occurred on a farm where he was working.

‘‘One day this fellow who didn’t seem to be in a good head space took his life in front of us,’’ he said.

‘‘I’d never come across this sort of thing before (mental health issues) and I didn’t know much about it.’’

Working as an agricultural contractor, Mr Kelly has been able to refer a number of people he is concerned about to Mr Lister.

‘‘Over the years I’ve been involved in many cases with people in desperate times,’’ he said.

‘‘I’ve got to be active because praying isn’t going to make it better.

‘‘We need to nip these things in the bud early on. You can help people if you act quickly.’’

Warrenbayne lamb and cattle farmer John Harrison is another who has been helped by Mr Lister, who visited him at his property as he went through a divorce.

‘‘It’s a lonely life out there farming and it can get you down,’’ he said.

‘‘We’re all vulnerable.’’

End date looms for role

Since beginning his role as a rural outreach worker in 2003, Ivan Lister’s work has been funded by many different bodies including local health services, state government and most recently Benalla Rural City Council.

Funded for two days a week, with an end date looming in December, Mr Lister is determined to extend the role and keep it going.

‘‘We’ve proven over 16 years that the role needs to be funded for three to five years in advance,’’ he said.

State Member for Euroa Steph Ryan has made many requests to Mental Health Minister Martin Foley to provide financial support for the program, however Mr Lister was recently informed that this role was funded by local government and would not receive state funding in the near future.

‘‘It really got me upset,’’ he said.

‘‘I’m not talking about being employed, I’m talking about this role which is so important.’’

He said funding of the role by local government was on a short-term basis due to budget constraints from one year to the next.

Mr Lister invited Mr Foley to visit some farming families in the Benalla region.

‘‘I’d invite Martin Foley himself to come to Benalla, get in the ute that I go around with and meet a few farmers and listen to what they’ve got to say,’’ he said.

‘‘The criticism the farmers have is they hear these people talking about the issues but they don’t see anybody and they feel they haven’t got a voice, so I reckon I’m the voice as much as I can.

‘‘I will stick up for the farmers — and they know that.’’

Warrenbayne farmer John Harrison said the work Mr Lister did was imperative in the area, and the current funding of two days a week was not enough.

‘‘Why is it so difficult to find funding for him?’’ he said.

‘‘How many dead farmers do they want (before funding is allocated)?’’