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Building mateship in the Australian bush

Stockinbingal, NSW
Image courtesy of Murrumbidgee Primary Health Network

John Harper is a retired farmer and shearer from Stockinbingal in the New South Wales Riverina. He is a passionate advocate for mental health and believes that the best advice comes from people with lived experience.

The Millennium drought hit John hard and he found himself worrying more and more about debt. He said that at a time when he was in his prime, he just couldn’t understand why he felt so bad – so at his wife’s urging, he did something about it.

 “I’m lucky that I’m a pretty open person, and I have a good relationship with my doctor. He told me that I had depression and that I should go see a counsellor. I thought he was joking!”

“I went, not because I thought I had depression, but because he was a mate and a mate wouldn't give me a bum steer,” said John.

John was lucky enough to develop a good relationship with his counsellor.

“He told me the best thing I could do was to tell my mates about what was happening. So I told six of my mates and over time they came back to me and told me what was keeping them up at night.”

It was then that John realised he wasn’t the only person finding it difficult to deal with the impact of the ongoing drought and life in general, and by talking with his family and his mates he slowly started to feel better.

It was John’s personal experience of mental illness that led him to develop the podcast series Mate Helping Mate. The series features stories of farmers and business owners who share their lived experiences of just how tough things can be in remote and rural communities, and the strategies they use to get by.  

John’s philosophy is that mates care about you, and support you in the bad times.

“One of the biggest problems blokes in the country still face is an increased sense of isolation and loneliness. People tend to isolate when they have mental ill-health, but this is a time when they need to come together.”

After helping a mate through his depression, John realised that by sharing his own experiences he could help others who were in a similar place. He worked with David Post, a Relationship, Personal and Family Counsellor, to bring Rural Outreach Counselling Inc. to the community and their ‘MateKeeper’ program was born.   

The MateKeeper Program operates on the philosophy that catching people at the prevention and early intervention stages is best for the treatment of mental ill-health. MateKeepers are everyday people who are on the lookout for people who are demonstrating signs of mental ill-health and reach out to be a mate, and help them find solutions.

“MateKeeper is important because it’s a way of unlocking people’s lived experiences and using them to find a way forward. By becoming involved in the community you are seen as a mate, and a mate wouldn’t give you a bum steer,” said John.

Find out more about the MateKeeper program: http://www.ruraloutreachcounselling.com.au/about.html

Check out the Mate Helping Mate podcast: https://www.matehelpingmate.org.au/episodes.html


If you or someone you care for is in need of immediate support you can contact the below National Crisis Counselling Services.

  • Lifeline 13 11 14 - 24 hours a day, 7 days a week
  • Lifeline Text 0477 13 11 14 – 6pm to midnight (AEDT), 7 nights a week
  • Beyond Blue – 1300 22 4636 - www.beyondblue.org.au (link is external)
  • Butterfly Foundation National Helpline 1800 334 673
  • Carer Support 1800 242 636 or 1300 554 660
  • SANE Australia Helpline 1800 187 263
  • Suicide Call Back Service 1300 659 467
  • Kids Helpline 1800 55 1800 www.kidshelpline.com.au(link is external)
  • MensLine Australia 1300 789 978
  • QLife 1800 184 527
  • Open Arms – Veterans and Families Counselling 1800 011 046


Images courtesy of Murrumbidgee Primary Health Network