Friday, 15 July 2016 15:45

Dairy farmer speaks out against stigma

Written by  Madeleine Brennan
Jack Kenna pictured with his daughter Brigid, wife Betty and son Jack. Jack Kenna pictured with his daughter Brigid, wife Betty and son Jack.

JACK Kenna has such a glass half full attitude it seems hard to believe he has battled with his mental health.

“The milk price and the clawbacks and everything are pretty ordinary at the moment but it's probably the way you look at things determines how you get through them too."

After 42 years, 27 of which have been living with a bipolar disorder, he's still milking a mixed herd of about 160 “liquorice & all sorts” at his 236ha farm in southwest Victoria, with wife Betty and their adult children Brigid and Jack.

“I'll keep farming 'til I completely go broke,” the 57-year- old jokes.

Recent rains have brought some welcome good news to the region.

"It's the best start to a season since 1992.”

That year was also a good year, Jack says, as it was the year he married his wife - something he hadn't thought possible only a few years earlier, when loneliness and lifestyle combined to trigger his first serious episode.

“I spent a fortnight in 1989 at the Brierley mental hospital as it was at the time.”

Despite the breakdown, he describes the experience as a positive one.

"It was initially pretty negative because all my friends were out having a good time and I was in there, so it took a while to get over it, but I realised how good my life actually was, because I had a big family and was part of sporting organisations, I had plenty of visitors,” she says.

“Whereas there were other people in there that society had forgotten about and they didn't have the networks in place.

“Sometimes you need to go through things like that to appreciate the amount of luck you've had.”

The sudden death of his father triggered another breakdown in 1999.

He stopped dairying, leased his farm out for three years and worked for three years with a dairy supply service in Terang, before taking the farm back over in July 2003.

Jack says he is sharing his story in the hope others will also speak up or seek help.

He, and other farmers from across Australia, will feature in an online video as part of National Centre for Farmer Health’s new Ripple Effect website and research project.

"I've had two major breakdowns but I've learned so much and I wouldn't have wanted my life to be any other way," he says.

“It’s funny looking back, what I went through, it was terrible at different places.

“But a lot of the gifts you get in life are wrapped up in trouble and you've got to unwrap that trouble from around them.”

He says social interaction, recreation and honest conversations with friends have helped him manage his mental health, and he encouraged others to do the same. 

A beer at the footy or getting on the golf course with mates was sometimes all it took.

 “It's not healthy to be on farm all the time, you've got to get out and about, because then you know you are not alone.”

He says being open about his struggles has helped other friends open up to him.

“If it hadn't happened to me, then people wouldn't seek me out. It helps me and it helps them.”

There is still a long way to go in breaking down the stigma of mental illness in the community, especially regional areas.

"The main thing is for farmers and men especially, to get rid of thinking that they've got to be stoic strong types that don't cry and don't get upset, because life isn't like that.

“You've got to acknowledge your feelings. It's as simple as that.”

Jack says he is now able to look at mental illness as a gift that helps others and puts his own daily concerns in perspective.

"When your mental health has been at its lowest point and you come back and enjoy decent health again, nothing could be as bad again in your life.

“I'd love to have money coming out coming out my ears, a new ute and everything else but there is way more to life than having everything and your health is your wealth.

“If I'm healthy and my wife Betty is healthy and my children Brigid and Jack are healthy, I don't want for much.”

For immediate support contact Lifeline Ph: 13 11 14

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