*This story contains discussions of mental health and suicide.
When an incredible group of ladies on the Eyre Peninsula decided to transform the conversation around mental health, they changed countless lives by promoting mental fitness in their community. In 2014, Mentally Fit EP kicked off as a program run through Port Lincoln’s West Coast Youth and Community Support. By partnering with local services and businesses, it reduces the stigma around mental health while equipping community members with practical tools for wellbeing and access to professional services.
Mentally Fit EP Community Development Officer Lain Montgomerie explains: “We’re here to empower the people around us to take charge of their lives and build a mentally fit, connected community. It’s all about bringing people closer together, having tough conversations and giving them the tools to help improve their own wellbeing.”
This life-changing program is generously supported by Bendigo Community Bank in Cummins and Port Lincoln, and is nurtured by a team of dedicated local experts through workshops, community forums, guest speakers, courses, engaging events, impactful awareness campaigns and the MFEP+ME Podcast. It’s also greatly supported by Port Lincoln Rotary, generous community donations, fundraisers and community members who bravely shine a light to help others.
Just one of the inspiring locals upholding Mentally Fit EP’s message is Michael Traeger from Cummins. Michael’s late wife Kirsty Traeger, who was one of the founding members of Mentally Fit EP, passionately advocated the importance of mental fitness by sharing her own experiences with depression, anxiety and suicide attempts.
“Kirsty got crook with anxiety and depression when we were living in Adelaide, and she made attempts at taking her own life. She went into hospital to get treated, and when she was in a better frame of mind, we moved back to Cummins, where we were both born. Kirsty noticed that mental health facilities were lacking in the rural areas and pitched an idea of raising funds and awareness about depression and anxiety to the CEO of West Coast Youth Services at the time, Jo Clarke,” Michael explains.
In 2014, the Mentally Fit EP team started with a gala dinner and raised over $20,000. With the help of a community grant, they began working on their vision. Today, they focus on raising awareness about mental health self-care, and offer educational programs and support for rural communities in the Eyre Peninsula. They conduct workshops (including the free Take Charge of Your Life course), talks and community forums in various places, including schools, nursing homes, hospitals, prisons and more, to break the silence around this once-taboo topic.
“It’s all about helping people to take charge of their needs. Trained facilitators roll out the programs to help people become aware of what they can and can’t control, and give them tips and techniques to respond to these things,” Michael says.
Kirsty’s early work as the face of the movement continues to have a powerful impact, and Michael has been hailed as a quiet hero of the movement, sharing their story at many events in the name of raising awareness.
“Kirsty used to regularly say that if she could help one person by sharing her experiences, then it would make it worth it. It sucks that it’s happened and I’ve had a lot of time learning about grief and being taught how to deal with it. I know if it was the other way around, she would share her story too to try and help others, so I’ve followed suit, and I’ll keep doing that.”
These days, Michael still lives in Cummins with Zac (now 7 years old) and his partner, and he’s hopeful about the change that Kirsty started. “It’s really hard to break the stigma of mental health in some areas, but when you look how far we’ve come with this foundation of raising awareness and changing public perception, I like to imagine where we could be in the next 30 to 40 years.
“Isolation is a big factor in agricultural areas, and a lot of the time, blokes in particular, won’t share their feelings or thoughts with anyone, or have this “toughen up, Princess” attitude, and that’s really bad. My biggest advice is if you’re having a hard time, reach out and have a conversation. For the person on the receiving end, you don’t have to have the answers, just listen and know there’s professional help out there,” Mick says.
“It’s an absolute credit to the Mentally Fit EP committee, the support of the Bendigo banks and community members that these programs are still going strong and making a difference more than 10 years later. Every single person is worth that.”
8 top tips
Harvest takes its toll on us all, mentally and physically — making today the perfect time to check out these tips for looking after your noggin’.
1. Get connected
Spending time with people in person, especially those you care about and who make you feel positive, is a great way to reduce stress and improve your mood. While phone calls and social networks are useful, there’s nothing like the benefits of getting face-to-face.
2. Ask for help
We’re all human and can feel tired or stressed. Having a conversation with someone you trust can help calm your nerves and reduce stress or lead to solutions. If you prefer to talk to someone you don’t know, you can call 24/7 helplines like Regional Access, which offers three free counselling sessions for people over 15 living in rural SA.
3. Eat well
Research links diet to mood, and eating a balanced, healthy diet is essential for your mental wellbeing. Foods that can help your mood include beans, fatty fish with omega-3s, nuts (like walnuts and almonds), avocados, dark leafy greens (such as spinach and kale), and fruits (like blueberries). Dark chocolate is also reportedly beneficial for mental health. For the best advice, speak to a registered dietitian.
4. Limit alcohol intake
Alcohol is a depressant that can mess with your brain’s chemical messengers, causing shifts in mood from positive to negative, like anger, depression or anxiety. Limiting alcohol consumption can be a great step in the right direction for mental wellbeing.
5. Get enough sleep
Try to go to bed early and stick to a regular sleep schedule for better physical and mental health. To sleep well, limit screen time before bedtime and avoid caffeine.
6. Be active
Regular exercise benefits both your body and mind. It boosts mental and emotional health, reduces stress, enhances memory and promotes better sleep.
7. Find your purpose
Everyone’s purpose is different but finding purpose is essential for good mental health. You can explore this by:
- engaging in meaningful work and activities
- nuturing important relationships
- volunteering and helping others
- doing one kind thing each day.
8. Practise gratitude
Practising gratitude is a great way to reduce stress and anxiety. Research shows that even a single act of gratitude can increase happiness by 10% and reduce depressive symptoms by 35%. To start feeling more grateful, follow these three simple steps: Notice, savour and express gratitude for the good things in your life.
Above all else … be kind to yourself and know that you are doing the best you can!
Learn more about mentally fit EP here
Help is always available, if in crisis please contact
Lifeline: 13 11 14
Regional Access SA: 1300 032 186
Suicide Call Back Service: 1300 659 467