WORDS: Steph Wanless | IMAGES: Tim Whan
Shanna Whan, the unlikely face of a survivor of alcoholism in the bush, is on a mission to catch others like her upstream, before they fall into the river.
This time last year, Shanna stood at the Sydney Opera House, all frocked up and surrounded by “very fancy, very serious celebrity influencers”.
Shanna was there to speak about her not-for-profit organisation Sober in the Country (SITC), an online rural health initiative designed to raise awareness around alcohol abuse and misuse in the rural space. It had been four years in the making, but in that moment her main concern was whether or not she’d fall over on stage thanks to her wedge heels.
“I was trying to keep it real, like I always do, but in the back of my mind I was thinking, ‘Wow, this year the hard work is actually going to pay off’,” says Shanna.
As founder and CEO of SITC, Shanna was booked to travel around Australia and share her story as a survivor of alcoholism in the bush, as well as the charity’s ethos.
Then COVID-19 hit. Within two weeks, everything was gone.
Heartbroken and lost, Shanna retreated to her rural home in north-western NSW as lockdown kicked in. But unbeknownst to her, a number of philanthropic-minded organisations had been keeping tabs on her from afar. That’s when the Yulgilbar Foundation and the Snow Foundation stepped in.
“They acknowledged that the work we’d done to date was more important now than ever and simply asked, 'How can we help?'.
“All of a sudden I was scooped up out of the quagmire and given the chance to keep going.”
And keep going she did. Six months into the pandemic, the rest of Australia finally had a glimpse of what Shanna had been saying for years.
“Isolation is our normal, this is what we deal with every day as rural people. We don’t have an alternative, iso doesn’t end for us when COVID goes away, this is our everyday existence and you can’t expect people to face one of the most significant battles of their lives – alcoholism and addiction – in isolation.”
Shanna goes on to say that securing support funding in regional, rural and remote areas has long been an uphill battle.
Yet, since January 2020, the Australian Government has announced a number of emergency response measures totalling more than $500 million to support the mental health and wellbeing of Australians through the COVID-19 pandemic .
“I know that’s a good thing but it also cemented those two disparities for me – the disparity with how rural services and support are funded compared to the city,” says Shanna.
“The NSW State Government and our federal leaders know who I am and what our charity is doing for many, and yet we may as well be invisible to them.
“Alcohol isn't an appealing and easy or popular vote-getting topic like hard drugs. But as it turns out, our independence and authenticity has been our super power – so there’s always a silver lining.
“Yes, we are the minority but we are the minority who feeds and clothes the majority. And if the people in the outer regions and remote areas of Australia can’t get support when they need it, then that’s not sustainable. They’re the people SITC exists for – we’re here to support the invisible demographic who are holding down jobs and doing amazing things, while battling quietly and privately and, ultimately, slipping through the cracks.”
Shanna knows what that feels like because she’s been there, done that, and survived to tell the tale.
In her own words, Shanna was a professional woman with great hair and make-up by day, and a virtual derelict in her own home after 5pm. Now six years recovered from alcoholism, Shanna is determined to catch people upstream, before they fall in.
“There’s a Desmond Tutu quote that perfectly sums up the purpose of our charity, that is: ‘There comes a time when you’ve got to stop pulling people out of the river when they’ve already drowned. We’ve got to go upstream and find out why they’re falling in’.
“That’s what SITC does, we’re going upstream by accessing people early on through education, social media advocacy and awareness, our peer support network – the recently launched Bush Tribe which offers the option of complete anonymity – and we’re having conversations that make sense, that are real, relatable and authentic.
“We are the boots on the ground face of addiction that looks like, smells like, walks and talks like other country things, and if we’re going to have any chance of catching people before they fall into the river, that’s how it needs to be done.”
Shanna doesn’t doubt the enormity of those boots to fill, but she’s marching forward in them all the same. Because the statistics that connect alcohol with death in the rural sector are, in a word, terrifying.
“We lose 6000 people every year in Australia to alcohol-related harm – that’s about one person every 90 minutes.
“What’s more, it’s proven time and time again that the further you go west, that number increases exponentially, because there’s no support, there’s no rehab, there’s no hospital. Instead, we’re building that support network online with SITC and it’s proven to be hugely effective. The conversations are travelling far and wide and today reach up to 100,000 people via our various socials.
“It’s taken off not because I’m extraordinary, it’s taken off because I’m so very ordinary and relatable and because these problems are so horrific and widespread. I simply carry that message and put a face to it – I’m the unlikely face of a survivor of alcoholism in the bush representing tens of thousands of other invisible faces who needed a leader to step up.”
This article was originally published in OAK Magazine Issue 9
Sober In The Country is an independent, not-for-profit charity addressing alcohol harm in the bush through their #OK2SAYNO campaign and via advocacy, social impact and their rural members only peer-to-peer support group. They believe connection is the vital missing ingredient for rural people choosing sobriety. So if you, or someone you know, needs help finding your way, reach out to Shanna and the SITC team.
“These images are taken at our new ''home'' at Maules Creek. It is Tim's old family church which was converted into a tiny minimalist living space. It's called ''Christina Cottage'' and was built in honour of Tim's great grandmother Christina Campbell. This place is very dear to both of us and the entire family. We are grateful to have peace and space around us.” - Shanna