Life and Other Catastrophes turns 10

Raf Epstein and Prof Jane FisherWhen Professor Jane Fisher first joined the then new host of ABC Melbourne’s Drive show, Raf Epstein, on a talkback segment tackling a wide range of topics affecting the lives of Melburnians, she had no inkling that the team would one day celebrate the show’s tenth anniversary. The highly successful Life and Other Catastrophes segment has seen Jane become a figure loved by thousands of regular listeners who respond to her calm, considered thoughts and empathic listening style.

Mary-Jane Fenech worked as the show’s producer back in 2011. She remembers meeting Jane in the planning stages.

“Raf was new to the show, so he really needed to shape the show around his identity. He’s a news man, and we were cautious about Drive becoming another hard news spot. We wanted it to be a forum for Melburnians to enjoy and engage with topics reflecting their own lives.

“I put the word out through my contacts that we were looking for someone to appear alongside Raf, and was advised to get in touch with a Jane Fisher at Monash’s Jean Hailes Research Unit. I drove out to meet her, and I knew straight away she was the one.”

Mary-Jane spent eight years working as a Senior Producer on the show, and is still an avid listener of the segment. “My favourite episodes are the meatier ones. There was one on autism in women, where one caller told us about how she would secretly listen to her husband speaking on the phone, so she could pick up communication tricks that would help her mask her condition. I also really enjoyed segments we had on navigating fragile family relationships through weddings, and favourite children! Struggles that are so familiar to many of us, but don’t get a lot of public airtime.”

These days, Jane Fisher is the Finkel Professor of Global Health at Monash University’s School of Public Health and Preventive Medicine. She’s a clinical psychologist by training, and due to the sometimes emotional and taboo topics covered through her research, she’s well practiced at navigating sensitive conversations without shying away.

She says, “The success of the show is in large part due to our generous listeners. They phone in with extremely personal and heartfelt stories, which they kindly and bravely share.

“It feels genuinely purposeful and valuable to provide a safe space to talk about these experiences. We know that people find it helpful to hear about how others have managed adversity and unexpected life events.

“Recent callers who have stuck in my mind include one woman who recalled shared the unexpected loss of her young child, and how she used the funeral to help the child’s classmates learn about death. And a man who shared with us his embarrassment of incontinence following surgery for prostate cancer. His courage and frankness were helping his friends (and our listeners) to decide about testing.

“Mental health and social wellbeing are huge components of public health. This segment enables me to bring evidence from public health research to discussions with members of the community. Raf is a skilled listener and has deep interest in his audience. If this shared segment provides reassurance to listeners, then it’s my great privilege to contribute to that.”

Host Raf Epstein says, “Jane is a radio natural. It’s not very often that people can bring not just their expertise, but also their humanity to a radio segment. She has the rare ability to listen intently to every story, and then ask the questions that unpeel the next layer of the story.

"Jane helped the show get through several COVID lockdowns in the last couple of years, which means she helped us all get through lockdowns."

Jessica Lukjanow is the current Drive producer. She says, “The text and phone lines always light up when it starts, I guess because it’s like free therapy, isn’t it?”

Drive’s average audience figures of around 775,000 listeners per week indicate that many agree with her.

“Jane’s very good at sharing her own insights and experiences. Early in the pandemic, we did a few segments to support Victorians, including one on separation from family. I remember listening to Jane talking about not being able to meet her new grandchild, and being struck by how the pandemic was affecting so many people in different ways.

Jessica is also a fan of the more serious topics. “The segment on the beauty of scars really got me. An elderly gentleman told us about a scar he has from a bike injury he got when riding with his Dad as a child, and he started crying as he was telling us what a lovely man his father had been. Another focussed on couples and individuals who had chosen not to have children, the decision-making behind it and the backlash and judgement they often faced. It can be hard to not well up in the studio.”

You can catch Jane on Life and Other Catastrophes at 4:20pm every Monday, and listen to recent episodes here.

Watch the 10 years of Life and Other Catastrophes episode on Facebook.

Watch Jane present on the mental health impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic in this From the Frontline: Clinical Impacts of COVID-19 webinar from August 2020.

Read more in Lens about Jane’s work in mental health, across women’s health, global health and the COVID-19 pandemic.

Interested in a career in mental health? Check out Monash University’s range of mental health courses.

Click here for more news from the School of Public Health and Preventive Medicine