SANE Australia and The Dax Centre announced on Monday they would merge following an investment of $1.19 million from the Victorian government.
The organisations have shared a common goal to reduce stigma and discrimination surrounding mental illness for more than three decades.
SANE Australia chief executive officer Jack Heath told Pro Bono News the organisations had a longstanding association, and complemented each other well.
“The Dax Centre’s work sharing personal and powerful stories of experiences of treatment, isolation and stigma through art complements SANE’s stigma-reduction work which places importance on sharing real stories of people living with mental illness,” Heath said.
“We’re honoured to be merging with such an iconic institution to help build on the pioneering work already completed by The Dax Centre to help reduce stigma.
“SANE Australia will draw on our strong communication and digital expertise to grow The Dax Centre to become a Melbourne-based national hub where the arts and mental health are celebrated.”
As part of the merger, The Dax Centre directors Associate Professor Elizabeth Dax AM and Rob Gerrand, have been welcomed to the SANE Australia board and SANE board chair Margaret O’Donnell AO is the new chair of The Dax Centre board.
Heath said recognising the strengths and expertise of each organisation was essential for a successful merger.
“I think in the not-for-profit sector there’s this assumption that mergers should just happen as a matter of course. I think what’s really important is there needs to be an understanding and appreciation of the strengths of what each organisation has brought,” he said.
“Having founded another organisation I know how important those issues of founding stories are and how the work that goes on, often over many years, is not appreciated. If you come to [a merger] from a straight business or commercial lens I think you’re going to run a cropper from the outset.
“I guess for me that’s why it was really important to have Liz and also Rob join the SANE board, because it’s about honoring all those great things that have been there through the work of The Dax Centre.”
Heath confirmed that the centre would continue to operate as The Dax Center.
“It’s a really important brand that we think needs to endure and so for us it’s a question of how do we build on what’s there with our capabilities to deliver something that would probably not be achievable without that partnership with SANE,” he said.
“We’re very happy with where we’ve landed. There’s an opportunity here to really build on the great work that The Dax Centre has done, and take advantage of the fact that SANE is an national organisation, we’ve got partnerships with about 60 mental health organisations around Australia and being well known around the stigma reduction work this is an opportunity to take it nationally.”
Heath said stigma was still a barrier that had yet to be “completely knocked down” for people affected by mental illness.
“I think across the board we’ve still got issues around stigma of mental illness,” he said.
“I think around the more common mild to moderate conditions around depression and anxiety, others have done a really huge job in terms of reducing that stigma. But when it comes to the more complex conditions and when we start talking about people who might have been in the hospital or been in the old psychiatric institutions, which is obviously where The Dax Centre’s work emanated from, we haven’t really shifted the stigma significantly for those people.”
As well as tackling the stigma associated with mental illness, the merger will provide opportunities to grow The Dax Centre’s programs, which promote mental health through the use of art, and will ensure the ongoing care of more than 16,000 artworks in The Cunningham Dax Collection.
It is the only collection of its type and size in the southern hemisphere and one of three such collections in the world.
It was formed after more than 8,000 artworks were salvaged by Dr Eric Cunningham Dax AO as Victorian psychiatric hospitals began to close down in the 1980s to form the kernel of the collection. Works have since been donated by individual artists, including poets, and groups experiencing trauma.
Heath said art had become “an incredible vehicle” for increasing understanding of the situation that many people have been living with.
“It also conveys a sense that just because you may be living with a mental illness doesn’t stop you from being an acknowledged artist in your own right.”
Dax said: “Merging with SANE Australia offers new horizons on a national scale.
“Art is a way for people to engage with experiences of mental ill-health and develop understanding not necessarily achieved through other learning methods.”
If you or someone you know is in immediate crisis, contact the following 24/7 crisis support services: Lifeline 13 11 14, Suicide Call Back Service 1300 659 467, Mensline 1300 789 978 or Kids Helpline 1800 551 800.