With depression and suicide a plague across rural and regional Australia there is no time for stigma. Change must be made and made fast. Dairy farmer Steve Dalitz could be called a survivor; his severe and debilitating depression has taken him to the brink — from where he has worked so very hard to complete a mental health miracle. He spoke to SOPHIE BALDWIN about a message he is determined to get to as many people as possible
Steve Dalitz is a farmer, not a first responder. But it took just one accident to scar him for life.
Even now, 21 years later, Steve is surrounded by triggers that take him back to the day he couldn’t save a man he didn’t know from being burnt alive after his truck ran into a tree at the front of his property.
Initially Steve thought he had got over the accident after a few months, but the reality is he has been living with depression ever since.
Tough times in the dairy industry over the years (natural droughts and floods Steve could cope with) but the mismanagement of water, the Murray Darling Basin Plan, poor milk prices and the demise of his own business as a result, have been hard pills to swallow.
And depression has reared its head again and again.
There was the time in 2000 when he moved his dairy operation 800km to what was supposedly a droughtproof farm, with shallow bore water.
Two weeks later he had 40 sick cows, six died almost immediately and the rest turned to skin and bone after being subjected to oleander poisoning.
The feed system cable broke three times in one milking and he remembered sitting under the silo in tears.
“Life continued on and I got over it. We had lots of shallow underground water and I thought we were bulletproof.
“Then the millennium drought hit and our shallow water table ran lower and lower.
“I was in a bad mood all the time, I only did what needed doing and I slept on the couch all afternoon.”
Steve likened his depression to alcoholism – it’s something he can’t get rid of but has to learn to manage.
“I think some people just have depression and for me, the accident triggered mine. I think it is important for people to know my story and that's why I am sharing it. I want to help remove the stigma
around depression, mental health and suicide and if I can help just one single person, I am happy,” Steve said.
Steve said there were times when no-one would have known he had depression – for the most part he functioned well, was punctual and could perform his daily tasks.
But there have also been times when his brain was so sore he could not turn it off – it caused him to lose snatches of the day, each day; simple tasks which should be completed in minutes had taken him hours.
He had cried; he had raged, and it only took small things to set him off. Depression has haunted Steve through the years, always lurking in the shadows that are the darker recesses of his mind, always on the verge of overwhelming him.
And very nearly did in January; for the most mundane of reasons – yet threatened to irreparably tear apart his family.
There had been a string of 40C days, his paddocks were bone dry and Steve felt he was being crushed under a sea of water and financial worries.
His son had come home from university to help him herd test but in Steve’s mind he did not properly wash the cow shit of the walls.
Steve lost it.
And nearly lost his son, who packed that night and went straight back to Melbourne.
The next day Steve packed himself off to the doctors.
“Inside my head I was just broken. I had verbally attacked my son over something stupid and I regretted that.
"I rang up and apologised after a couple of weeks and my son knew I was sorry because that's not something I normally do.
“We are good now and we head down to the AFL together, we are Carlton members and things are even better now Carlton are starting to string together a few wins,” he laughed.
But in all seriousness Steve's visit to the doctor probably saved his life.
“I was put back on pills and they have helped get my head to a goodish place compared to where I was in January," he said.
"I was advised to see a psychiatrist, but this is where the system stinks, I didn’t say I was having suicidal thoughts and it took me five months to get into the psychiatrist through Medicare.”
When he finally got that first appointment he quickly found the visits were helping and Steve was learning to manage his depression a little differently this time around.
“I had a chat the first week. We thought post-traumatic stress disorder might have been the problem, but I did a test and there were only mild effects," Steve said.
"The second visit I was tested for depression and anxiety and that was more my thing. Each visit I get homework which is to teach me to manage my condition without the use of strong drugs.”
Learning to breathe has also been effective.
“Last night I tried the breathing as I was having trouble getting back to sleep at 2am. All it involved was breathing in deeply, using my gut muscles for seven seconds and letting it out slowly and saying to yourself relax," he said.
"For three minutes you breathe in and out like this and I can’t remember the end of the three minutes. I need to do this breathing technique three or four times a day, every day.”
With his previous bouts of depression, Steve had self-medicated with work, the more he did the less he thought about what his mind was trying to do to him.
“I would go on some pretty high doses of pills, wean myself off them and try to keep myself busy by doing things that made me happy,” he said.
That had included a 10-year involvement in a local theatre group, six years co-ordinating junior cricket and coaching in Shepparton and Saturday’s in winter umpiring footy, all while running what was a 300-cow dairy.
“As you can see, keeping out the negative shit was actually very hard work mentally,” Steve said.
He has made the tough decision to sell what remains of his dairy herd later this month.
His journey with depression has certainly changed him but he remained determined to not let it beat him.
“It has been a roller coaster for me and my family and it has certainly changed me. I am a lot more empathetic than I ever used to be.
"When I was in my 20s I would have thought people with depression should just get over it, but that’s like telling someone with a broken leg to run around the block – it just doesn't work that way.”
He would urge anyone who was feeling unwell to reach out and get some help.
“Don’t leave it too long, the earlier you start the easier it is to control.”
Steve has turned to Facebook to open up about his battle and has received many private messages.
He is still hoping he can make a difference – for anyone or everyone.
If you or someone you know needs help now, call Lifeline on 13 11 14 or Beyond Blue on 1300 22 4636. If it becomes a crisis go immediately to the nearest hospital or phone 000.