In rural Australia you are “more likely to see a four-humped camel” than a psychiatrist, according to beyondblue chairman Jeff Kennett. He speaks with BRAD WORRALL about his 12-year campaign and how the Border can take a "giant step forward".
BRAD WORRALL: What was your personal motivation for being part of beyondblue in 2000? What more do you hope to do?
JEFF KENNETT: Sadly it started in 1997 when two of my daughter’s male friends died in totally unrelated car accidents in western Victoria within a week of each other.
What we found out later was what we thought were car accidents were young men taking their own lives — using their car as the weapon of destruction.
That was to motivate me to find out more about suicide and its causes.
We discovered the causes of these tragic acts were invariably emotional or clinical depression.
Emotional depression may be someone breaking up with their partner and struggling to get over it, turning to grog perhaps and doing something silly.
Clinical depression or, worse, bipolar or schizophrenia is a medical condition that requires care and often medication.
After 12 years what is your motivation to keep going?
The latest research says 91 per cent of people are aware of beyondblue.
That is testament to what we have done in cities and throughout regional and rural Australia.
But despite making great inroads and while all governments are making more money available to mental health because of our advocacy, there remains a lot to be done.
Firstly, some of that work is with men who see it as unmanly to seek help, which is just ridiculous.
Secondly, and despite a growing awareness of these issues, most people don’t realise that most emotional and clinical depression can be treated and, if not cured, can be managed for people to live a full and productive life if properly diagnosed.
But, like me if my car breaks down, it is no good if Jeff Kennett is looking under the bonnet, you need to go to a technician. So, too, when your health is behaving in a way that is not normal — you need to seek expert help.
A common theme among the people we have spoken to is limited services or care centres, particularly for adolescents in the country. Does beyondblue acknowledge that and what does your organisation suggest needs to be done?
There are too few services and professionals. The first thing for young people is that their parents and friends, who recognise there is an issue, are prepared to assist them and encourage them to seek help. That would normally be to see your family doctor but if your GP is not trained in mental health you need to find a doctor with that training — there is a difference. After that there is access to psychologists and psychiatrists. But rural Australia is so short of psychiatrists that you are more likely to see a four-humped camel.
Families have also told us they have been isolated by practitioners, frozen out of the treatment. They feel they should have been part of the solution. Do you have an opinion about the role of family in the treatment of mental illness?
There is no doubt the more people involved the better it is for the individual, with one exception and that is dependent on the relationship between the individual wanting to be involved and the person seeking help. The other difficulty is these bloody privacy laws. If the person is an adult they can stop the GP from talking about the illness to anyone else including their parents. So often the separation from the interests of the well-being of their child is often because of the laws and the choice of the individual. I guess the most important thing is to build confidence in the community and encourage people to talk, to seek help. It is not a crime to be ill, it is not a crime to be depressed and it is not a crime to have suicidal thoughts. But it is very sad if those thoughts or those needs are not met or shared with those closest to you.
Many of the writings of young people affected by mental illness describe their own sense of isolation, the stigma of the illness creating a barrier between them and their former friends. How does beyondblue suggest we can do better, how can we make people better understand?
As I said earlier it is not a crime to be ill, it is not a crime to be depressed and it is not a crime to have suicidal thoughts. What is a crime is when the individual does not have enough confidence in their community to seek help without being looked down on or stigmatised. Getting rid of preconceived views is one of the most important challenges for any community — whether that be the Border or Melbourne.
What role does the media have to play in influencing public perception about mental illness, as well as Facebook and other social media?
I think the paper needs to talk about it. We need to bring it to people’s attention. In many cases you will hear parents and friends say they knew nothing about it, there were no signs. That is often the case with men who conceal their emotions. It is only when you look back at the attempt of suicide, whether successful or otherwise that you get an idea of what might have gone wrong. I have met, in the past 12 years, many people who have attempted to take their lives but failed and not one of those people have indicated to me that they wished they had succeeded. All have said they wished they never tried it. So even though some of them carry the most horrific injuries, even to the point of quadriplegia, they say they are glad to be still alive. We need to encourage those young people who, for a whole range of reasons, are having suicidal thoughts that they are only short term and that life is for living. That for however much pain they are in today, however much isolation they feel, they should seek help. For not only have they got many years of productive and enjoyable life but if they excuse themselves from the world, while it is their choice, they damage the life of families and friends for the rest of their lives.
For many young people they are also dealing with comments on social media that can lead to depression, harm and even death.
We need to educate young people about that sort of unwanted intrusion, the bullying.
I think the community has become softer — we spend hours a day on iPads, iPhones and iPods. We no longer play sport in the same numbers, we don’t engage in conversations other than through electronic media.
Another constant has been the frustration with help lines. Families and sufferers say they offer very little support to those in crisis, that privacy and confidentiality laws mean families are often told children are in trouble when it is too late.
Privacy laws were put in place with the best of intentions but they are actually hindering a lot of people in terms of getting information and acting in the best interests of children at risk. There is no simple answer. It drives me insane the number of times we try to help with certain cases but are buffeted about by bureaucrats and others who are simply upholding the law. You would just love common sense to apply but that can’t happen when the law is so prescriptive.
Does beyondblue recognise a difference in what is available in metropolitan cities and regional and rural Australia? Has it made any recommendations to the medical fraternity or government on what can be done to make this better?
In so many cases it is simply a matter of money. And while people will say they need services, the fact is governments are increasingly running at a loss and to put these services forward means you have to identify other services that you have to cut out. Therefore you end up with a whole lot of disgruntled people in other areas.
But headspace services are being rolled out in many provincial towns and Albury-Wodonga with a large population would qualify.
They are very good and if they were to come to the Border that would be a giant step forward.
Is there any chance that beyondblue could extend its involvement into the pointy end of service delivery? Would it be appropriate to take the next step and use some of your resources to deliver services to the country?
We don’t have the resources to do that. We have an information line but our customers say they need more than that. We are looking at what more we can offer those who ring our help line and how we can do that better.