IN 2000 I founded beyondblue with the aim of achieving a national approach to an insidious illness that had no profile and, with mental illness itself, was the ugly duckling within the health portfolio.
Fourteen years later, with the assistance of a committed board, a compassionate and professional staff, in partnership with many similar organisations, the world is a different place.
Now people are talking about depression and mental health issues and more people, particularly men, are seeking help from professionals for their illness.
Beyondblue and mental health have been given a newer and higher priority by every government in Australia, with some even appointing ministers for mental health. Every government in Australia over the past 14 years has committed considerable new funds to mental health.
This week, Mental Health Week, I ask every Australian to think about their own health and if you have been consistently existing below your norm, you could be suffering a depressive illness. Seek help from a professional.
This week closely observe your family, your friends and workplace colleagues and, as best you can, reassure yourself that they are in good health.
But remember your own health is most important, for you can’t discharge your responsibilities to your family, friends, work or sport unless you are in good health.
Three things contribute positively to being in a mentally good place: a good diet, exercise and being busy. Beyondblue has been conducting education programs throughout Australia for the best part of those 14 years. We are out in all corners of the country and more recently have been using social media to connect with the community, whether it’s those who suffer from depression, their carers or the public generally.
We have completed and are still conducting many important research programs that, when they prove up, we introduce into the community, be they our peri-natal, workplace, schools, anti-discrimination or other programs.
With all this activity and public discussion, you would think we are happy with what we have collectively achieved. We are not. There is much more to be done.
Suicides in Australia appear to be rising, with the preliminary figure released by the ABS for 2012 being 2535, or seven Australians a day. About two-thirds of suicides are the result of emotional or clinical depression, so although as a community we are much more at ease in discussing depression and mental illness — and seeking professional help — the number of Australians dying by their own hand is a national disgrace.
Something more must be done. We need to engage the community in a national campaign to reduce the numbers of suicides.
It can be done. Remember the wonderfully successful campaign started by this paper in 1970, 44 years ago, to reduce fatalities on Victorian roads, which in that year were 1034. In 2013 Victoria had 242 fatalities; still too many but 76.5 per cent lower than 1970. The whole community backed the Sun campaign, including the government. But in 2012, 502 Victorians died by their own hand, more than twice the road toll for 2013 of 242.
I would like to encourage the News Corporation group, of which this paper is part, to again commit to a public campaign with all the vigour of the road toll campaign, to back it and run it for years, to have it supported by governments around Australia with the same bipartisanship they show beyondblue and, increasingly, to mental health itself.
With Australia’s suicide rate being almost exactly twice the national road toll, think of all the money we spend on promoting good road behaviour, compared with the small amount of public attention we give to depression and mental health.
Yet, as with a road fatality, a suicide can be the start of a lifetime of pain and suffering for those who remain. Worse, suicide can often make such an exit acceptable in the eyes of others, particularly the suicide of a father in the minds of his children, to the point that many sons or brothers follow the example of their father later in their lives.
So much good work is happening, but we need to do more. Mental Health Week allows us to be creative, to think deeply about our own health and those we associate with, and consider what more we can do to build on the advances of the past 15 years.
The medical practitioners and the people who have been staffing our mental health facilities have done great work. But we need to take that work to a new level.
We need a national campaign to tackle suicide over maybe two, three or four decades, just as we have had with the road toll.
Let us bring together the best minds to construct a simple message to substantially reduce the 2535 suicide deaths.
I hope the Herald Sun, its sister papers and even its competitors will take a leading role in the campaign.
Stay well and use the week to honestly assess your health and that of your family and friends — but also prepare yourself to be part of a national campaign to reduce suicide in this country.
After all, it might be your son or daughter who is at risk.
JEFF KENNETT IS A FORMER PREMIER OF VICTORIA AND CHAIRMAN OF BEYONDBLUE
This article first appeared on ‘Herald Sun’ on 8 October 2014.