Trundle school principal and 2021 Australian of the Year nominee John Southon a rural mental health advocate

BIG FOCUS: Trundle Central School principal and 2021 Australian of the Year Award nominee John Southon, with Member for Riverina Michael McCormack, would like to see more political representation in the country.
BIG FOCUS: Trundle Central School principal and 2021 Australian of the Year Award nominee John Southon, with Member for Riverina Michael McCormack, would like to see more political representation in the country.

For those who have the privilege of knowing John Southon, would know he's passionate about two things - his hometown of Trundle, in NSW's Central West, and helping and advocating for country people when they need it most.

When the Trundle community really began to feel the pinch of the drought more than three years ago, that's when John stepped forward.

But the 52-year-old central school principal says the drought just gave him an "excellent vehicle to get my message out there", adding that mental health was the bigger issue that's always severely plagued country towns.

"It's always been an issue, it's a big passion of mine," John said.

John attracted media attention across the globe through his public advocacy, generating many donations for drought-affected families in Trundle and raising $175,000, with the help of his staff at Trundle Central.

He's our everyday hero and this year he was nominated for an Australian of the Year Award.

A record number of 5500 people were nominated for the 2021 award, with 130 people selected as state and territory finalists.

The 2021 theme of Australia Day was Reflect, Respect, Celebrate and award organiser the National Australia Day Council wanted to celebrate all those nominated - the everyday heroes.

ACM, publisher of this masthead, is media partner of the 2021 Australian of the Year Awards, which were announced on Monday night.

John was quite overwhelmed with the nomination and said he didn't know what was happening when the Australia Day Council called him about the awards.

But John admitted he did have mixed feelings about the nomination, saying that the problems in the country are big and people in the city aren't aware of its extent.

"I think it's good not high profile people were nominated," he said.

"I'm very happy with that aspect."

Among John's efforts - such as coordinating multiple individuals and agencies to deliver ongoing drought relief to Trundle - he refurbished the school's showers and opened them up to families when the town started to run out of water and John heard kids were coming to school without showers.

John obtained tools for Year 10 students learning mechanics or farming and arranged driving lessons for Year 11 and 12.

But a big focus - one he plans to continue into the 2021 school year and beyond - was starting a teenage mental health program across the region.

John saw how the drought affected the community's mental health.

With marriage breakdowns, suicides and domestic violence, he understood the school is the centre of a child's life and wanted to ensure it was an "emotional oasis" for them.

Over his teaching career John has lost students to suicide.

"We're losing our young people at a national disgrace," he said.

"Mental health is such a hideous problem in our communities.

"And there's still so much stigma around it and people won't talk about it, we're trying to break that down.

"The process in family court, for example, takes so long, so you have these kids and families in limbo."

John plans this year to look at how they can cater for the individual - instead of using a standardised approach, and what services are available.

"We're actually teaching children, we want to empower them, teach them to be the best they can be, teach them they can fail with dignity and learn to pick themselves up when they do," he said.

John also wants more political representation in Trundle, he wants the town's local members of parliament to visit more often.

"I want things to change, it's not good," he said.

John said he's shown representatives from organisations and charities in the city some of the conditions children in the country are living in.

"They're baffled that rural poverty exists in a country town," he said.

"There are children who don't have running water at home... And it's 2021."

John's selfless dedication to his community was recognised when he won the Leadership Award at the 2019 NSW/ACT Regional Achievement and Community Awards.


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This story 'Hideous problem': School principal a champion for mental health of country communities first appeared on Parkes Champion-Post.