Meet the clinical psychologist shining a light on mental health issues in rural Australia

Meet the clinical psychologist shining a light on mental health issues in rural Australia

Stephanie Schmidt, the 2020 AgriFutures SA Rural Women’s Award Winner, is working to build resilience in our most remote communities.

When Scottish pastoralists first arrived in a semi-arid corner of South Australia, they named it World’s End, because that’s exactly what it looked like – a flat pasture framed by hills on each side of the horizon stretching on for eternity.

When clinical psychologist Stephanie Schmidt arrived at World’s End 15-odd years ago with her then-boyfriend, she thought much the same. “I grew up in suburban Adelaide with a supermarket at the end of my street,” reveals Schmidt, who met her now-husband while working at a country pub in the city. “When we first moved out here, my husband said one day we’ll own from one side of the horizon to the other, and we do now. We’ve had some reasonable years, but the last four have been so dry.”

Over the last 15 years, Schmidt has seen – and personally experienced – the hardships of living in a rural community. “The experience of running a farm is hard. As well as having to manage the pressures of modern life, people in rural areas also have to deal with the ongoing impacts and trauma of drought, bushfires, floods and natural disasters,” explains Schmidt, who is developing a resilience program with a focus on acceptance and commitment training. “Having worked as a clinical psychologist in the area for seven years, I’ve seen how common depression and anxiety are.”

Schmidt, 34, has also seen how some farmers can fall through the gaps of the current system if they’re unable to attend regular appointments in-person at a clinic. “Currently, they’re trying to put urban models into rural areas, and that’s just not fitting,” she admits.

As such, Schmidt has developed online workshops and a printed handbook that’s accessible for all. “Instead of setting big lofty goals that feel impossible, [my program] is all about taking small steps,” says Schmidt, who tries to practice what she preaches. “In the last 12 months after having my third child, I probably took on too much and I ended up developing postnatal depression. Even knowing all I do about mental health, I still developed postnatal depression. We’re never going to get rid of mental health issues, but we can give people a solid foundation to manage these challenges when they show up.”

By equipping people with the tools to manage life’s inevitable stresses, Schmidt hopes they will be able to live rich and fulfilling lives. “There’s certainly more awareness of mental health issues, and what we need now is to move beyond spreading awareness and towards learning skills that people can use every day. My program is less about therapy, and more about training,” she says.

For Schmidt, receiving the AgriFutures Rural Women’s Award and the accompanying $10,000 bursary from Westpac has been invaluable in making her hope for the future a reality. She’s used the funding to attend a business innovation program and to hire a graphic designer to make her handbook freely accessible. “It’s really exciting that the Award recognises the value of my program and how mental health fits within agriculture,” says Schmidt.

We spoke with Stephanie Schmidt as part of our partnership with AgriFutures, profiling women in agriculture.

The AgriFutures Rural Women’s Award National Winner and Runner Up will be announced via a live virtual National Announcement event on Wednesday, 20 October 2021 at 12:30pm (AEDT).

Free registrations are now open until Wednesday, 13 October 2021.

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