HomeFred Hollows Awards: Alannah McGregor named Humanitarian of the Year

Fred Hollows Awards: Alannah McGregor named Humanitarian of the Year

Alannah McGregor tragically lost two of her three children to suicide in the space of a month. But she didn’t let it stop her from making a huge difference.

In the 19 years since she lost two of her three children to suicide — their deaths just one month apart — Alannah McGregor has worked tirelessly to both raise awareness of suicide prevention and ensure that no family is subject to the stigma that hers was.

Ms McGregor’s son Stuart, 20, was subject to horrific workplace bullying — changing him “from a normal, happy, healthy young man to someone who lay in bed with a bag over his head because he didn’t want us to look at him”.

His demeanour impacted the whole family — including his youngest sister Angela, 16, with whom he shared one of the most distressing details of his bullying.

When the culture at Stuart’s workplace came to light, the Equal Opportunity Commission and WorkCover eventually stepped in. Ms McGregor said that Angela’s fear that her brother’s secret would come out contributed to her tragically taking her own life.

“So he blamed himself,” she told news.com.au. “And a month later, he did too.”

Knowing “that workplace bullying had pretty much been the reason that both of them died”, Ms McGregor, who was this afternoon named the Fred Hollows Foundation’s inaugural Humanitarian of the Year for her remarkable work, began to speak out on the matter.

What began in 2004 as a DVD on the issue that was sent out to 300 workplaces, led to her speaking at “a few conferences and talks about workplace bullying”, including to funeral directors and Bendigo Health.

Then in 2011, she and fellow advocate Bette Phillips were invited to speak about bullying and suicide in the workplace, after which they were told about Geelong’s Suicide Prevention and Awareness Network (SPAN).

The two women decided they’d like to do something similar in Bendigo — and in 2012, SPAN Bendigo held its first Suicide Prevention and Awareness Walk.

In the years since, the organisation has held the annual walk, as well as sharing “personal stories in the paper or on our Facebook page which then helped with the stigma associated with suicide”.

Then in 2019, they were granted $100,000 in funding by the Victorian Government, “which we used to do 36 SafeTalk seminars in Bendigo, and that was in workspaces and public places”.

Despite the pandemic cancelling their annual awareness walks over the last two years, they’ve continued to work “really hard on the preventive side”, including holding family support groups in conjunction with Headspace Bendigo, and creating crisis cards for young people with the help of Headspace, community health and school support systems.

While the work “wasn’t always easy to do” and has been “emotionally very, very draining” at times, Ms McGregor hasn’t let it stop her.

“I was never ashamed that they died by suicide, but I was often made to feel like I should be … Right from the beginning, I just felt that there was that stigma that was so strong — that people walked across the road or didn’t comment or mention the kids, whereas if they’d died in a car accident, I’m sure we would’ve had the sympathy and the empathy. It was just so different,” she explained.

“I’ve always said I’m not ashamed that my children died by suicide. (But) it’s such a shame that they felt there was no other option for them.”

The SPAN walk alone, she said, “has brought about a lot of change in our community (in Bendigo)”.

“When it started off, it was mainly people who had been bereaved that attended, but as the years went by, we really worked at getting people to come along and support those people, and to be aware that everybody knows somebody who’s had a suicide in their life,” she added.

“And I think that that stigma — it’s still there with some people — but I think it’s hugely improved.”

When she learnt that she’d been nominated for the Fred Awards — which recognise everyday humanitarianism in Australia and celebrate people who care for others in a decent, practical and no-nonsense way, just like the renowned Kiwi-Australian ophthalmologist did — she was so surprised she “thought it was a scam”.

To find out that of the 91 nominees and eight finalists, she’d been selected by the Australian public as the inaugural Humanitarian of the Year, was simply “such an honour”.

“Especially something like with Fred Hollows. It’s a name that you hold up with dignity,” she said.

“But it’s never been about accolades or recognition, for me. Underneath it all is the fact that I lost my kids and that is why I do it. It’s about using that experience to help others.”

Ambassador to The Foundation and close friend of Fred’s, journalist Ray Martin, congratulated Ms McGregor and said he was impressed at the calibre of nominees.

“To read about what each nominee has done for their community during a global pandemic is truly inspiring. I always say that Fred Hollows was one of the most remarkable people I’ve ever met, but I think even he would agree that we have some strong contenders here today,” he said.

“Congratulations to you all for being the light in your communities. I hope you continue your amazing efforts to better the lives of those around you.”

You can learn more about the Fred Awards here.


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