The Ripple Effect: Helping farming communities deal with suicide and mental health

By Karen Percy

Jack and Betty Kenna know first hand that there is nothing more painful than watching a child suffer from mental illness. Their 23-year-old daughter Brigid is currently in hospital.

“It’s such a silent thing — you can’t see mental illness,” Mr Kenna said.

The 58-year-old former dairy farmer knows better than most what it is like to be in that dark place. He was there in October 1989.

“I was 30 years old, I didn’t have a girlfriend and it hit me like a tonne of bricks,” he said.

Mr Kenna spent 10 days at a facility in Warrnambool after a breakdown, but came back with the help of family, especially his father who ensured his friends visited him.

A few years later he met and married Betty and she was there for a second episode, prompted by the death of his father in 1999.

He spent 14 days in another Warrnambool mental hospital.

“The kids were devastated of course — I’d take them into visit and that was hard. We’d drive away [and they’d say] ‘want dad, want dad’,” Ms Kenna said.

“Anyway, dad came back … it ended up good, because his attitude was good. He wanted to get well.”

The Kennas are hoping Brigid will be home soon.

“It would be a great Christmas present,” Mr Kenna said.

Physical illness often ‘more acceptable’.

Mr Kenna is among a brave group of farmers across Australia who are sharing their stories as part of The Ripple Effect

While Mr Kenna never attempted suicide, he has thought about harming himself.

“It was more acceptable [to have] that physical illness than what you were going through with a mental illness, that was a lot harder to cope with,” he said.

“Suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem,” he said.

The Kennas have recently closed their own dairy operations, preferring to run others’ cows on their land, giving them more time to devote to their daughter.

‘Farmers have too much time to think’.

The Ripple Effect is being run by the National Centre for Farmer Health based in Hamilton, Victoria, where researcher Dr Alison Kennedy estimates the rate of suicide within the farming community is twice that of other Australians.


“Within the farming community specifically there are some unique kind of stressors that everybody else in Australia might not necessarily face,” Dr Kennedy said.

Dr Kennedy said that isolation meant there was “plenty of time to think about things, plenty of time to plan if it comes to that.”

Farmers are being urged to take part in The Ripple Effect’s online survey to help communities and health services better deal with suicide.

In Martin Butler’s 30 years as a farmer and social worker, he has known many men and women who have taken their own lives as a result of floods, bushfires or the stress of the farm.

“This is an opportunity that gives a sense of hope and support,” he said on his Teesdale property.

People go days without speaking to anyone.

Mount Gambier-based agronomist Bridie Tierney’s role goes beyond a sales agent these days.

“Sometimes you go out to see a client and you don’t know how many people they’ve seen that week, if they’ve seen anybody,” she said.

“If they haven’t seen anybody and you’re the person that turns up at their place, sometimes it’s good to be able to have a chat with them.”

Ms Tierney also acts as a sympathetic ear and sometimes counsellor.

“Often a problem shared is a problem halved, so if they feel like they’ve got somebody to talk to that might just be enough,” she said.

The National Centre for Farmer Health also runs clinics for farmers to advise them on their physical health

The Ripple Effect study is open until March of next year.

If you or anyone you know is experiencing a crisis, please call Lifeline on 13 11 14.

This post originally appeared on ABC News.

© 2016 Australian Broadcasting Corporation. All rights reserved. Read the ABC Disclaimer here