Farmer-turned-filmmaker Leila McDougall's feature film ‘Just A Farmer’ delves into the stigma faced by a young widow and mother of two in the aftermath of her husband's suicide in a rural Victorian town.

The film’s narrative strikingly parallels the real-life experience of Kristy Steenhuis, a Ballarat local and Wellways Program Coordinator of Western Victoria’s StandBy After Suicide Program, who played a key role in the making of Just A Farmer.

Kristy Steenhuis (right) and Leila McDougall (left) at Just A Farmer's Ballarat Premier

The power of lived experience and loss

Reflecting on her similar path of loss and healing, Kristy shares, "My lived experience is that I lost my husband to suicide when I was 28 and my kids were five and 10 – it’s been 18 years now and I’m doing okay with it."

Kristy lent her expertise and lived experience to the film’s scripting process. On set, her support and advice to cast and crew translated to the film’s deeply authentic portrayal of human resilience in the face of tragedy.

"It was pretty surreal to be honest because I’ve never done anything like this before."

The story behind Just A Farmer

‘Just A Farmer’ is unique because it depicts farming, a typically male-dominated industry, through a female lens. This beautiful and nuanced account is brought to life by Leila, who not only wrote and produced the film but also plays the film’s lead character, Alison.

"So many women that I spoke to that had lost their husbands to suicide, their experiences were so different to losing a son or a father or other family member," she says.

Guiding light behind the cameras

On set, Kristy was able to provide education and resources based on her lived experience and work. She also offered support to those whose feelings were activated by certain scenes, encouraging open discussions about their personal experiences with suicide bereavement. In addition, she provided sessions on health grieving techniques and the power of emotional expression as a way to connect with others for support.

"It was wonderful having Kristy on set," says Leila. "Some scenes were quite intense. She was a great person to talk to, and the crew would sit in the caravan with her to have a chat."

At both premieres, the first at The Astor Theatre in Melbourne and second in Ballarat, Kristy and her Standby team had booths offering suicide prevention support to audiences.

Behind the scenes, Kristy supported the crew when emotions were high filming difficult scenes.

Grief and resilience on and off screen

In some of the film’s more painful scenes, Leila’s character, Alison, is exposed to gossip about her deceased husband that spreads quickly in her small rural town.

"One of the first things for me after my husband had suicided was the thought that people are going to blame me because I wasn’t a good enough wife to keep him alive," says Kristy. "As a wife and mother, I felt a deep sense of shame and guilt. Then, I actually had people avoid me that I had known my entire life, who would basically cross the road just to not have that conversation with me."

According to Kristy, people who have been impacted by suicide are eight times more likely to suicide themselves. This is why responding quickly with postvention work – talking to people after a suicide – can also prevent further suicides.

From heartache to hope

"Back when I was bereaved, there was nothing at all."

"People often worry that mentioning a certain name will cause the person grieving to remember or dwell on painful memories and make the situation worse," Kristy explains. "But the truth is, they're always thinking about it. They've already experienced the worst thing imaginable in life; nothing you say can make it worse.

That's why it's important to educate people to simply say, 'I don't know what to say, but I'm here for you. We can sit together and see what happens. We don't need to talk. I'm not here to fix it, but I can offer practical support or be a listening ear."

Standby Support offers a beacon of hope

This is why Kristy has dedicated the past two decades to suicide prevention. In the past, merely mentioning the word "suicide" in her regional town of Ballarat would clear a room.

Now, overseeing programs such as "What do I say, what do I do?", Kristy equips communities with the necessary tools to respond and cope with the impact of suicide locally. This program is offered through StandBy Support after Suicide—an Australian Government initiative delivered in Western Victoria by Wellways.

Find out more about Wellways' Standby After Suicide services and locations on our website.

Learn more about Just A Farmer and where to watch the film.