How this Aussie mum is fighting for the mental health of our farmers

Even Hugh Jackman is on board.

Content warning: This article discusses the topic of suicide which may be triggering for some readers.

Leila McDougall walked into her parents’ farmhouse in Walcha, NSW to a scene of chaos. Pills lay scattered across the table and floor, and alcohol bottles were strewn all over.

“I threw my son at my husband and started frantically looking for Mum, but she was gone,” Leila tells New Idea.

Thankfully Leila’s dad, James, had arrived home in time and called an ambulance. Her mum, Sonia, was in hospital. Her attempt to take her life had been unsuccessful.

Eight years on from that awful day, Leila, 35, says, “It came a bit out of nowhere. Dad has bipolar and Mum’s always dealt with his ups and downs, but being the carer takes its toll.

Leila as a baby with her parents

“She was admitted to rehab for three weeks and had a lot of support when she got home but it was hard. There was a lot of shame.”

Raised on a property and now married to a sixth-generation farmer, Sean, Leila has had a front row seat to the lack of mental health support in rural communities – and the subsequent fallout – all her life.

Recent statistics show an Australian farmer dies by suicide every 10 days and people in rural populations are twice as likely to die by suicide.

“That year two men in Walcha had already taken their lives and we’ve lost so many to suicide where I live too,” says Leila, who is now based in Tatyoon, VIC.

Life on the land is so special to Leila

“It made me want to do something, make a difference. In 2014 we set up the not-for-profit Live Rural to raise awareness of farmers’ wellbeing.”

Its annual fundraiser, Mellow in the Yellow has donated thousands to community initiatives over the years.

But more recently, Leila had a fresh idea.

“I wrote a script, a family drama about a rural community in the aftermath of a suicide,” she says.

“I’m severely dyslexic and always hated writing but I have a big imagination and when I worked out it didn’t matter if I can’t spell, I got on with it.”

While filming was “chaos”, Leila would do it again in a heartbeat.

Juggling her work on the farm with raising her kids Vincent, eight, and Vivienne, six, it took Leila 18 months to complete her script. Then, by chance, she got it in front of Aussie actor and director, Simon Lyndon.

“He fell in love with it and then it all just happened,” Leila says with a smile.

“People like Hugh Jackman were advising us! I think because the message is so important people wanted to help.”

The film, called Just a Farmer, was made on a budget and Leila herself has a starring role.

“I think it will blow people away,” she says.

The movie poster for Just A Farmer.

“My real aim is for it to open a can of worms. I want it to raise awareness of the toll farming, and feeding our population, takes on people.”

Plus, profits will go to train counsellors in rural communities so it’s a win-win for the farmers it champions.

“My mum is doing great now, and both my parents were very proud when they saw [the film],” Leila adds.

“Everyone who’s seen it has loved it. It was chaos making it but I’d do it all again.”

If you or someone you know has been affected by any of the issues raised in this article, help is always available. Call Lifeline on 13 11 14 or visit their website.

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