It's easy to forget that Will to Live co-founder Elle Perriam is just 23, given the traction she has garnered on her mission to improve mental health awareness in rural communities around New Zealand.
Now some of that traction is to take place at the 2021 East Coast Farming Expo, which will be held at the Wairoa A and P showgrounds on February 24-25.
She will be the guest speaker at the Rural Women New Zealand Agri-Women's Luncheon on the second day (the Thursday), among a range of exhibits, outdoor demonstrations and seminars,
It all started when her farm-worker partner took his own life in 2017 and set in motion a drive that continues to get support from all sorts of people, organisations and businesses.
Her story has become well-documented, but it still surprises her how strongly it continues to resonate with so many.
The Ministry of Health says in the year ended June 2020, New Zealand had 654 deaths by suicide – 471 men and 183 women – a drop of 31 on the previous year which happened to be the highest on record. The 25-29 year age group is over-represented in the figures.
"When you look at that, every person will be touched by this at some point in their lives ... I think that is why people feel they can connect."
In 2019 she quit her university studies and took her message on tour holding informal meetings in 18 rural communities. "I had this real fire in my gut to do it and knew if I didn't do it then, it would never happen ... so I had to make some sacrifices."
Knowing it was going to be costly, she set up a pledge me page and the money started rolling in. That financial support continues today with emails daily from people offering money to ensure Will to Live continues its good work.
People shared their stories. "Relatability is everything – when they hear others sharing their stories it gives them the confidence and makes them comfortable to share their own story, knowing they will not be judged. I am not sure why this has been hidden for so many years," says Elle.
"We are all human and have emotions but the more we hold them in, the longer we suffer. As soon as someone comes out and it looks like they have healed, it makes their story inspiring."
The people who spoke on the tour were just "average blokes". "They weren't stars or celebrities – just relatable and reliable blokes. It is more influential and inspiring than hearing from a celebrity who doesn't have the same life pressures as a farmer."
The tour also became part of the healing process for Elle and the other speakers. "It gave me closure."
Her next goal is to create a fund so farmers can access private counsellors when they need it instead of going on an eight-week waiting list in the public system. From her own experience, Elle knows both the immense value a good counsellor brings and the danger of that waiting time. "I wasn't happy with that at all. We were depressed and it was a dark time. That is where my anger came from and Will to Live sprouted. We can be the rural health bank and give it back to those who need it."
While it is predominantly the 16-35-year age group Elle works with, it is not unusual for an older farmer to sidle up while she is working and have a chat.
"It is harder to crack the older generation through no fault of their own. They are conditioned to act that way over generations and years ... and we want to break that generational trauma cycle."
Elle is now the upper South Island manager for Allflex, an international animal tag company. It was Allflex that stepped in as national sponsors to get Will to Live off the ground three years ago.
She is also studying naturopathy so she can take her helping of others to another level.
"It is worth more than money to me. I get the most satisfaction when someone says I have helped them. I feel honoured when people want to open up – it is a very brave and courageous thing to do."
She knows the hardest part of healing is admitting there is a problem. "The rest is easy from there. It is just getting over that barrier."
This is a young woman on a mission to break down all the barriers. "Rural New Zealanders can help rural New Zealanders," she says.
"This is a cultural issue – not a Government issue. It comes down to New Zealand mannerisms – the 'she'll be right' thing. Everybody has to check in on their mates."
There is also a video in the making. Elle and her team headed on to the farms of those who have spoken up for Will to Live and made five minute documentaries on them, their stories and how they got through it.
Right by her side throughout it all is her former partner's dog Jess.
"She is just my best mate who his family so generously gave to me. She has been my saviour really. I am now at a good point in my grief – I still constantly get help but I have come to an acceptance really."
And as challenging as her work with Will to Live is, she thoroughly enjoys it. "It is the most satisfying thing I have ever done."
Elle is a perfect fit for the work done by luncheon sponsors Rural Women New Zealand and they are looking forward to the Expo.
"Face to face connection is really good," says member Tamzin Coull.
"Elle's story is very relevant and rural mental health is a real hot topic. It is about people putting their hands up and asking for help. Having a connection is vital."