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From forgotten to engaged, how regular meaningful conversations can help save lives

From corporates to small business in regional, rural and remote communities - the difference a R U OK? conversation has made.

From forgotten to engaged, how regular meaningful conversations can help save lives
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  • Maja Garaca Djurdjevic
  • August 02, 2019
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Stephen Dowling was born and raised in an isolated mining town. Growing up in Broken Hill gave him first-hand insight into the pressures faced by people living in isolated parts of Australia. It’s no surprise that today his work is driven by the desire to promote help-seeking behaviour across the many regional, rural and remote communities in which he works.

It all started when at 28 Mr Dowling joined Western Mining Corporation as a remuneration specialist and accountant.

Not long after that, he joined BHP Billiton, where he handled the human resources issues along with his usual accounting duties. 

Only 10 years after leaving his hometown, Mr Dowling had achieved career success with promotion to vice-president HR/HSE for BHP Engineering - a global construction business.

But that is not all Mr Dowling did.

While holding down a significant corporate role, he would use his spare time to establish his own small business, not your usual side hustle, this business was created to support those facing difficult situations. 

Mr Dowling also became an R U OK? ambassador and principal master mental health first aid instructor.  

Why? He was witnessing first-hand the effects of the late ’80s and ’90s economic crisis, dot com crash and GFC economic crisis on regional, rural and remote mining towns. 

“There were significant economic downturns across many industries and I was able to work with complex organisations to provide care and support for others, in the most difficult of times,” Mr Dowling explains. 

Many people, struggling through no fault of their own, inspired him to go a step further. 

“My business, Delivering Safe Services and Safe Production, led me to become a specialist in physical and psychological risk mitigation for people at work,” Mr Dowling recalls. 

Its mission - to empower everyone to meaningfully connect with people around them and support anyone struggling with life utilising the R U OK message and mental health first aid skills to encourage help-seeking behaviour.

Mr Dowling has been helping organisations large and small to land on their feet since he left BHP in 2001. 

He and his clients have picked up many state and national awards along the way, and Mr Dowling recently was the recipient of the ‘R U OK? Conversation Champion’ of Australia Award at the inaugural R U OK? Barbara Hocking Memorial Awards.

Held in Sydney by suicide prevention organisation R U OK?, the Barbara Hocking Memorial Awards recognise efforts to create a world where we are all connected and protected from suicide. 

The panel took the time to celebrate Mr Dowling for his significant contribution to suicide prevention work, which has opened up the conversation for many in regional, rural and remote communities.

“Stephen’s work spreading the R U OK? message within regional, rural and remote communities has delivered real impact, encouraging others to have regular, meaningful conversations and invest more time in the people around them,” said Katherine Newton, CEO of R U OK?.

Mr Dowling explained that while he is proud to win this award for his promotion of R U OK? in regional, rural and remote locations throughout Australia, he looks forward to continuing to share and learn with others with one single focus in mind; to continually reduce the risk of suicide and encourage people to seek professional clinical help.

“In my work over the years I have come to see specific industries that seem to be forgotten. The truth is that regional, rural and remote communities are forgotten. Small business is forgotten,” explains Mr Dowling. 

“Sometimes they have no one they feel they can to turn to and the message of R U OK? and the knowledge of mental health first aid skills can encourage people to seek professional clinical support within their community.

“Whilst I’ve got a corporate background, I’ve always managed and owned a small business myself. For me it’s about giving back to communities that sometimes can be overlooked.”

Mr Dowling also works with National Rural Independents, which help him identify high risk rural and remote communities around Australia and he responds by running R U OK? Mateship and Mental Health First Aid workshops.

Since 2018, workshops have been delivered at Lake Bolac, Cobram, Balranald, Serpentine, Toowoomba, Port Lincoln, Eyre Peninsula, Dry Creek, York Peninsula, Esperance, Launceston, Emerald and Townsville.

“Being an accountant, when you start to look beyond the numbers, start to look beyond the averages and you start to look at the communities, you can see a lot of communities in remote, rural and regional locations that are really hurting,” he clarifies.

Today, married and a father of two, an award-winning R U OK? ambassador and principal master mental health first aid instructor, and a successful small business owner, Mr Dowling is also a valued member of the Institute of Public Accountants, of which he has been a part of for 37 years.

In closing off our interview, Mr Dowling says he would like to reiterate the importance of keeping an eye on SME and small business owners in regional, remote and very remote communities. 

He advises accountants to expand their knowledge of mental health first aid, with the goal to help themselves, their staff and their small business clients. 

“As accountants we focus on the ‘why’ and the ‘what’, but on some issues we need to learn the ‘how to’. How to encourage others to have regular, meaningful conversations. If needed utilise the key messages of R U OK? and mental health first aid skills an effort to promote mental health literacy and encourage help-seeking behaviour,” Mr Dowling concludes.

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