Warning: This article discusses suicide.
Spend any time around All Black Sam Whitelock and there's no doubting his star power.
At the annual agricultural Fieldays, near Hamilton, the 30-year-old was hard to miss. A towering figure at over two metres tall, a seemingly endless number of people waited to meet him, and the personable Whitelock was happy to oblige with photos and signings.
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Whitelock is from a farming background, growing up on a dairy farm in Manawatu, and intends to return to farming when his rugby career comes to an end. So his visit to Mystery Creek was about an issue close to his heart, one which continues to rip many rural families and communities apart.
Whitelock is the ambassador for Farmstrong, a nationwide wellbeing programme for the rural sector. It aims to encourage conversations about mental health and wellbeing, and curb the number of farmers taking their own lives.
Farmstrong project lead Gerard Vaughan said how that message is communicated is key.
"Farmers have told us that they want information on being a better farmer, not information about health, and definitely not about mental illness and depression," he said.
He said most farmers are focused on their land, stock and machinery.
"But if you are not focused on the most important asset - which is the farmer and the people working on the business - and that falls over, then the whole business is at risk."
Whitelock is the high-profile face of getting that message out to farmers, and said it is something he is passionate about.
"The easiest way to sum it up, is around your own personal wellbeing - not only yourself, but also your farm," he said.
The programme has clearly struck a chord with Whitelock.
"You as a person are the biggest asset of your farm and if you are healthy, thinking the right way, you are going to make great decisions; and if you're not, well those decisions might be compromised."
Whitelock is happy to use his profile as an All Black to help spread what he says is a serious message.
"At times it would be easy to sit back and let people come to you but you actually have to engage with people, and if you can say gidday to some people here, they might go back and have a look later on the website or even spark up a conversation at home.
"That's what we are really after, we are after those conversation starters, and if we can do that we are definitely succeeding."
Whitelock said while the Farmstrong programme is aimed at the rural community, the issue of mental health is confronting many New Zealanders.
"If you talk to anyone in the wider community, whether it's farming or the general public, everyone's got a story to tell."
He said New Zealand men are reluctant to open up about how they are feeling, something he is also working on.
"I think males in general are pretty bad at it, at times I can be the same. It's something I am trying to do, be more open and probably talk more about things."
Whitelock knows the nature of living in a rural community can compound the issue.
"It can be hard for people that live in an isolated community and at times they can't get away from their day to day job - they live, work, breathe it."
He's also practicing what he is helping to preach.
"I grew up on a dairy farm, and when rugby is all finished we are going back farming, and we are really excited that - but there's also some great challenges that go with that.
"So you have to practice what you preach and at times, I don't always do that, but the best thing is I am a lot more aware of it, and hopefully I'm making the changes myself."
And with more photos and signings awaiting, Whitelock had a simple message for farmers doing it tough.
"Call up a friend, a family member - someone that you can really trust and open up with them."
Where to find help and support:
- Shine (domestic violence) - 0508 744 633
- Women's Refuge - 0800 733 843 (0800 REFUGE)
- Need to Talk? - Call or text 1737
- What's Up - 0800 WHATS UP (0800 942 8787)
- Lifeline - 0800 543 354 or (09) 5222 999 within Auckland
- Youthline - 0800 376 633, text 234, email firstname.lastname@example.org or online chat
- Samaritans - 0800 726 666
- Depression Helpline - 0800 111 757
- Suicide Crisis Helpline - 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO)
Men's Health Week (June 10 - 16) aims to bring awareness to health issues that disproportionately affect men.