Son designs way to break down mental health stigma after father’s suicide

Photo: Brendan McDonnell has converted the shed where his father died into a gym. (Supplied)

Photo: Brendan McDonnell has converted the shed where his father died into a gym. (Supplied)


Brendan McDonnell is on a mission to prevent suicide after his father’s death eight years ago left him shattered.

“My father suffered with mental illness for many years and in 2007 he took his own life,” Mr McDonnell said.

“I found his body … I was 15.”

Photo: Damian McDonnell in 1983. (Supplied)

Mr McDonnell, now 24, said he shut down completely after his father Damian’s death.

“My father left behind a suicide letter written in an A4 exercise book and it was addressed to me personally … so that was the icing on the cake,” he said.

“In [the letter], he expressed that he didn’t want to expose me to the doom and gloom that had taken over his life.

“There was a hell of a lot of trauma [and] the letter caused me to shut up shop. I went pretty much silent for around five years.”

He has converted the shed where his father died into his own gym and a place for his friends to meet, to turn it into a positive place.

Mr McDonnell said he had a close and loving relationship with his father Damian, whom he described as a “family man gangster”.

“I had a very, very good childhood,” he said.

“My father basically came from nothing.

Photo: Brendan McDonnell with Stephanie Peel wearing clothing he designed to raise money. (Supplied)

“He grew up in a housing trust in Mitchell Park and somehow, my family ended up living in North Brighton and going to Brighton High School, which we’re very proud of.

“I was the youngest, so I’d be the one with my old man, just going around with him every day, day to day … his little sidekick.”

After completing a Bachelor of Architecture at the top of his class in 2012, Mr McDonnell decided something needed to change.

“I found myself with all these certificates and awards on my wall, but just sitting in my room as a 20-year-old, crying.


“I was sleeping in until two o’clock and crying the rest of my day away.

“At that point, I realised I had to get help and that I couldn’t just help myself anymore.”

Photo: Some of the money raised from the sale of Herman’s Hands clothing will be donated to Lifeline. (Supplied)

After seeing a psychologist, Mr McDonnell decided to travel overseas.

He spent 18 months on the Mediterranean island of Malta before starting a blog to tell his story and reach out to other people bereaved by suicide.

Once he felt he had written everything he needed to, he developed the idea of using a clothing line to increase awareness of suicide and to raise money for prevention services.

He has named his brand Herman’s Hands.

“This will allow me to attach my message to a tangible and identifiable vehicle for awareness spreading.

“Herman was my father’s nickname. This brand acts as his hands, from wherever he is now.”

Photo: Brendan McDonnell models the clothes with his cousin Zoe Flinn and girlfriend Stephanie Peel. (Supplied)

“The graphics I’ve used for the first line are all inspired by the tattoos my dad had,” Brendan said.

“[My Dad’s] tattoos concreted his spot within the rough, tough Aussie stereotype — a culture that condemns the vulnerable and if you’re sad, you’re bloody soft.

“I’ve used the snake to symbolise this rough, tough stereotype [because] I firmly believe that this culture is what stands in the way of us removing stigma surrounding mental health and suicide in this country.

“I’m hoping to [break down stigma] by tapping into street wear fashion and popular culture — something that’s actually appealing to people.”

A percentage of money raised from the sale of Herman’s Hands clothing is donated to suicide prevention services, like Lifeline Adelaide, with other funds directed back into manufacturing clothing.