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Julia Gillard delivers public lecture on mental health at the University of Adelaide

Julia Gillard has delivered her first public lecture on mental health since her appointment as the Chair of beyondblue from 1 July this year.

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I acknowledge the traditional owners of the land on which we meet and in a spirit of reconciliation pay my respects to elders past and present.

Thank you to Jennie for that kind introduction. It’s a pleasure to join you all today.

I always love being on campus here at the University of Adelaide though most of my visits are far less visible than this one. I enjoy coming here without any fanfare and speaking to students, who are taking courses like Global Politics or Gender Studies.  Being in the company of bright minds has a way of brightening your day.

The University also comes to me in the form of interns who complete a project in my office each semester. I am now hosting the sixth intern and in their work they have shone a light on topics from how to best measure education outcomes to enhancing the representation of women in public life.

All this reinforces in me what a wonderful institution this University is and how proud we should be of the way it honours the past while embracing the future. All of this is caught in this University’s noble call to ‘seek light’.

Today, I want to talk to you about seeking light in an area that has traditionally been shrouded in darkness, and that is our individual and shared experiences of mental health. Together, we can save and improve lives if we change how we talk, think and act on mental health.

Language Matters

It all starts with simple words.

Sayings like “seek light” or “love thy neighbour” or “yes, we can” have the power to change the things we do and the way we see the world.

Indeed as poets, philosophers and even politicians have shown over many centuries, there is something almost magical about words and the sway they have over us.

The field of mental health provides a rich study of how language and attitudes shape and reinforce each other.

Think of the word ‘lunacy’, which dates to the 1540s. The word, used to describe what we would recognise today as severe mental illness, had embedded in it the then common belief that the moon’s cycles triggered the behaviour.  The law made use of the term ‘lunacy’ to describe any unsoundness of mind that rendered a person unable to manage their own affairs.  But within forty years, by the 1580s, the language historians tell us that ‘lunacy’ was in more common parlance and used to describe foolish conduct more generally.

Or think of the word ‘hysteria’ and the fact that even today it is a term more likely to be used to describe conduct by women. This word was gendered from the start, being drawn from the Greek word for womb. It was used from the 1580s to describe what were viewed as neurotic conditions peculiar to women and thought to be caused by a dysfunction of the uterus. By the 1800s the word was in more common use to describe high excitement or emotion.

The fact that these words double up in our language as insults is no accident. Our language has embedded in it a disdain for, even fear of, mental illness.

The term ‘mental health’ was actually first used by physicians, social reformers and former asylum patients in the early 20th century to combat the stigma caused by such negative descriptions.

Mental health conditions – like any disability, physical or mental – have been with us forever; they are a part of the great continuum of normal human experience.

From the ancient Greeks who believed depression was an imbalance of body fluids, to early Christianity when God or the devil, or both, were to blame.

As a result people prayed, confessed, sought spiritual guidance or even resorted to exorcisms to cast out the evil that afflicted themselves or their loved ones.

In the Victorian era they built asylums. People were locked up, discarded, shut away. Some families were ashamed and tried to forget or lied about their loved one’s very existence.

They were “sent away” for a range of conditions that we now identify as postnatal depression, stress, anxiety, alcoholism or dementia. People could even be declared “morally insane” for social transgressions or acts of rebellion.

These days – most of the time – mental health conditions are treated with compassion and understanding.

But not all of the time.

We still have a long way to go in fighting the stigma and discrimination that surrounds mental health. Language, images, discussion, communication and education all play an extraordinary role in shaping a better future.

Which is why we owe such an enormous debt to Jeff Kennett.

Not a clinician – not even a serving politician at the time – Jeff decided 17 years ago that he was going to break the taboo and talk about mental health.

He calls himself a layperson, but an educated layperson after a decade and a half of talking to people about these issues: professionals, leading clinicians, mums and dads who have lost children to suicide, people living with and managing depression and anxiety.

Through the years he has encouraged, cajoled, lobbied – and, yes, sometimes unashamedly stared down his critics – in order to get the message of mental health out to the millions who need to hear about it.

Fast forward 17 years and beyondblue is one of Australia’s most recognised and respected not-for-profit organisations supported by the Federal Government and every State and Territory Government in Australia.

Reflections on the beyondblue announcement

Last week, I was honoured to be announced as the next Chair of its Board of Directors.

Jeff Kennett has not only led beyondblue for 17 years with distinction –   as a leader he has shown great foresight in working out how and when he wanted to make a transition to both the next stage of his life and of beyondblue’s life.

Whilst I was a fierce critic of Jeff’s in my early political life, he put any form of partisanship to one side and reached out to me three years ago to join the beyondblue board.

What followed was a period of me getting to know beyondblue and the Board and Secretariat getting to know me. Jeff became convinced that I was the new Chair beyondblue needed and I became enthralled by its work.

Mental health and preventing suicide have always held a deep personal significance for me.

After our family migrated from Wales to Adelaide my Dad took up training as a psychiatric nurse. That launched a career for him that lasted three decades and he absolutely loved it.

As a child, I talked with Dad about his job and occasionally visited him at work at Glenside Hospital which, in those days, accommodated everyone from the acutely unwell to young children with Down Syndrome.

My sister and I would go there and have Christmas parties with the kids. That was our life, and we enjoyed it.

In beyondblue I have found an organisation that I respect and that champions this cause, which is so close to my heart. I also found a way to honour my father, who devoted so much of his life to those struggling with mental illness. It is a natural fit.

I will step into the role of Chair on the 1st of July knowing that beyondblue fully deserves its reputation for building community education programs on a solid foundation of evidence-based research. These programs reach millions of Australians of all ages in many different settings.

From pre-school through to primary and secondary school all the way to university.

From sports clubs to FiFo sites, into workplaces of all shapes and sizes.

One of the most dynamic areas of beyondblue is our workplace team that reaches out to industry leaders around the country to encourage a whole-of-organisation reappraisal of mental health in the workplace and to change cultures and practices.

In 2014 beyondblue commissioned Price Waterhouse Coopers to assess the impact of poor mental health in Australian workplaces.

That research found the cost to Australian businesses of poor mental health was $10.9 billion a year: but that for every $1 invested in creating a mentally healthy workplace there is a $2.30 return.

That is a great return on investment in business terms and, of course, the social returns magnify that gain many times over.

beyondblue is also a leader in digital and online support services and programs such as our online forums that attract 70,000 users each month.

Our support service for telephone and on-line counselling is staffed by mental health clinicians who are available around the clock.

But beyondblue’s greatest strength of all is – and always will be – its community.

Those who work for beyondblue, those who raise money for it, those who come to beyondblue to educate themselves about depression, anxiety and suicide prevention in order to learn how to help themselves or those they love.

Our blueVoices online community now numbers around 8000 people – all of whom have personal experience of depression, anxiety and/or suicidality and are looking to talk about it.

We have a bureau of extraordinary Speakers and Ambassadors – who range from every day people to celebrities and sports stars – who attend hundreds of meetings every year to tell their personal stories of hope and recovery in order to help others.

As Jeff Kennett says, nobody owns beyondblue. It is owned by the community and it is bigger than politics. I have the greatest respect and admiration for the work Jeff has done in building beyondblue to be one of Australia’s most trusted organisations devoted to addressing depression, anxiety and suicide.

The future

So I really do have some very large shoes to fill at beyondblue and the work is vital.

I want to briefly highlight two areas where beyondblue will be striving to make a major difference in the next few years.

The first is preventing suicide. Originally, beyondblue conceived of its mission as being around raising awareness and stigma reduction, especially focusing on those with depression.

Over time the mission expanded to encompass those living with anxiety.

Now, we have embraced the hard challenge of reducing suicide.

We know that every day nearly eight people will suicide and 200 will attempt to take their own lives.

The Australian Bureau of Statistics recorded 3027 suicides in 2015: that is two and a half times the national road toll.

Members of our Indigenous and LGBTI communities are at even greater risk with rates more than double that of the broader population.

Yet our hard, evidence based knowledge about how to reduce suicide numbers is limited. beyondblue is working on a strategy, which will bring together the best evidence from here in Australia and around the world to combat suicide, will scope what more we need to learn and will propose our own actions for change.

We already know that 15 to 25 per cent of those who attempt suicide will try again in the days, weeks and months following discharge from hospital.

And too many will be discharged right back to exactly the lives and circumstances that may have contributed to their suicide attempt – and with no active follow up or on-going support.

To help address this beyondblue is piloting the Way Back Support Service which is designed to guide people safely through this critical period.

The Way Back – with trial sites in New South Wales, the Australian Capital Territory and the Northern Territory – delivers one-on-one, practical support for people who have tried to take their own lives and assists them in reconnecting with community, medical professionals, family and trusted friends.

Reducing the suicide toll will require new thinking and new collaborations. Many organisations and individuals are already making a difference and many more will want to join this effort.  We all have a role to play in confronting this complex and tragic problem. Certainly, beyondblue will be stepping up to play its part.

While we contemplate the horror of our national suicide statistics, we must confront the fact that today there are three million Australians living with depression and/or anxiety. We know that untreated depression is one of the leading causes of suicide. But we also know that around 50 percent of those with depression do not get the support they need when they need it.

At beyondblue we believe this is in part due to concern about the stigma and discrimination around mental health issues. That’s why how we think and talk about mental health is so important.

But how we act is vital too. The sad reality is that many who reach out for help do not find the services they need.

We have to find a way to better support our friends, families, work colleagues and community members – and those who love and care for them.

And that is why, earlier this month I helped to launch the NewAccess program here in Adelaide: an Australian first.

It took beyondblue seven years of research, design, modelling, trialling and evaluating this program to finally bring it to fruition.

NewAccess is designed by beyondblue to close the gap between the entry point for mental health support for mild and moderate depression or anxiety, and high-intensity professional services.

It is for people who are not currently accessing mental health services including hard-to-reach groups, such as men, people in rural areas and Indigenous Australians.

ReturnToWork SA and Rally HomeCare have shown great vision in working together to provide South Australians with this easy access to quality mental health treatment that could potentially prevent health crises from developing down the track.

beyondblue’s aim is that through the regionally based Primary Health Networks, a service of the quality of New Access should be available to all who need it. We will be advocating for this and actively collaborating with Primary Health Networks on achieving it in the months to come.

I left last week’s announcement that I was to succeed the one and only Jeff Kennett with a sense gratitude; for Jeff’s work and what he has achieved, for his and the Board’s confidence in me, for the professionalism of our staff, who under the Board’s guidance and oversight are the those who really get the work done.

But most of all, I fell grateful for the fact that beyondblue has such deep roots in the Australian community and there is greater and growing preparedness to talk, think and act on mental health and to prevent suicide.

Perhaps, in this beautiful building at the University of Adelaide, that is all best summarised as a collective desire to seek light.