The symbolism of inheriting her late boyfriend's black huntaway, Jess, is not lost on Elle Perriam.

Mental illness is often referred to as the black dog and Jess will play a pivotal role in the newly launched Will to Live campaign.

Will to Live is a mental health awareness campaign targeting young rural men and women which has been launched following the death of Will Gregory in December last year.

Gregory, 20, who was working as a shepherd and was an accomplished rodeo competitor, took his own life.


The campaign has been driven by Perriam, Gregory's sister, Sam Gregory, and his best friend, Adam Williams.

Jess the dog will be the mascot for a regional Speak Up tour in country pubs next year as the trio endeavour to spread their message in the most accessible way possible for the younger, rural demographic.

Perriam was concerned that counselling was not always easy to access in rural, remote areas and it could take weeks to get appointments. It was often hard to get a day off in the middle of the week during busy periods such as lambing or shearing and often it was not in their culture for young people to ring a helpline, she said.

Elle Perriam and dog Jess, who is the mascot for a regional Speak Up tour.
Elle Perriam and dog Jess, who is the mascot for a regional Speak Up tour.

Initially, she had the idea back in February but was still in such a state of grief she could not bring herself to do anything about it.

Now, she acknowledged, she was still struggling but the issue was something that could not wait any longer.

A PledgeMe crowdfunding campaign was launched to cover the expenses of the Speak Up tour and, within just three days, half of the $15,000 target was reached. If the target was exceeded, that would allow more sessions to be rolled out.

23 Oct, 2018 5:00am
4 minutes to read

When it came to the make-up of the event, Perriam considered how best it would "hit home". While she could introduce a range of older, male speakers and professionals, that was not something they would necessarily relate to. The mantra was "by young people for young people" and she wanted those attending to gain all the tools they needed from both professionals and people who had been through depression.

A Will to Live ambassador from each region would speak at each event so there was an ongoing mentor in the area for anyone wanting to talk. They also wanted to impress upon those attending the power of having gratitude and everyone having their own will to live.

Miss Perriam never had an inkling Gregory had any mental health issues. He loved his job and had "awesome" bosses and colleagues, while rodeo was his "will to live".

Elle Perriam (left), Adam Williams and Sam Gregory are the founders of Will to Live.
Elle Perriam (left), Adam Williams and Sam Gregory are the founders of Will to Live.

He was a placid, easygoing, relaxed sort of person for whom nothing was ever an issue, she said.

She hoped he would be proud of what the trio were doing, despite it all being "still pretty raw" for them.

"We're doing it for him and doing it for us. We don't want anyone else to experience this. We're doing it for all young rural people and their families," she said.

And it was not just immediate family and friends who were affected; there were also flow-on effects. She gave the example of the police officers who attended the sudden death, the wider Kurow community and even the effect on people who did not know him.

She emphasised that speaking up was not for everyone and it was about individuals finding what best worked for them.

Tough as it was dealing with the loss of her boyfriend, Perriam said she felt a new level of motivation in recent days and happiness from the comments and personal messages she had received, reassuring her she was doing the right thing. That was very satisfying.

While Will to Live was never going to bring back Gregory, it was about trying to turn something bad that had happened into something good, she said.

Will Gregory bucks his way past the crowd during the open bareback at the Outram rodeo last year. Photo / Stephen Jaquiery
Will Gregory bucks his way past the crowd during the open bareback at the Outram rodeo last year. Photo / Stephen Jaquiery

Gregory had four dogs and they were given to his close friends following his death. Perriam took Jess, who held much sentimental value for her.

When she first met Gregory, she did not have any dogs to go shepherding in North Canterbury, so he lent her Jess while he went to Canada for the Calgary Stampede.

She "fell in love" with the dog and, while she gave Jess back when he returned, she was thrilled to now have her and Jess would be the mascot for the Speak Up tour.

Speak Up is starting at the Hunterville Huntaway Festival on Saturday, October 27, with an attempt at New Zealand's largest recorded "bark up" supporting Will to Live.

With an opportunity to raise the issue with more than 200 shepherds, it was going to be chaos but also very effective.

Perriam, who is studying agribusiness and food marketing at Lincoln University, said her dream was to be a mental health educator for people in rural isolated areas.

Where to get help:
Rural Support Trust: 0800 787 254
Lifeline: 0800 543 354 (available 24/7)
Suicide Crisis Helpline: 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO) (available 24/7)
Youthline: 0800 376 633
Kidsline: 0800 543 754 (available 24/7)
Whatsup: 0800 942 8787 (1pm to 11pm)
Depression helpline: 0800 111 757 (available 24/7)

If it is an emergency and you feel like you or someone else is at risk, call 111.