As the National Party member for Warrnambool in the Victorian State Parliament, John represented his electorate from 1985 until his voluntary retirement in 1999.
Simultaneously, John, a father of five, was supporting two of his sons who were experiencing mental illness – trying to get the best care for them at a time when people wondered if depression was a real illness, when information about mental illness was hard to find and when the associated stigma was widespread.
Having experienced first-hand the difficulties of navigating the mental health system and finding it hard to get appropriate care for his sons, John retired from politics in order to direct his energy towards getting better services for people with mental health problems – and their families.
Besides being a founding member of the beyondblue Board, John was the Deputy Chair from 2000 until his retirement in October 2010. He received numerous awards for his significant public contribution to mental health – including being honoured in the 2008 Queens Birthday Awards as a Member of the Order of Australia (AM).
“I think the key to reducing stigma experienced by people with mental illness is to increase everyone’s understanding of illnesses like depression, anxiety and schizophrenia. As people become better informed, those who need help are more likely to take action early, get treatment and crises will then be less likely to occur.”
Sadly, John’s role as a public advocate on behalf of people suffering mental illness was inspired by personal tragedy. In 1993, he lost his 28-year-old son Shane to suicide.
John recalls that Shane’s problems started in high school. “Shane was a straight A student until he started to battle a bit in class because he couldn’t concentrate. That was the first sign that something was not quite right and it was the beginning of a roller coaster ride.
“He would lock himself away and feel so unloved and unwanted in a family that loved him. He showed signs of depression, was sleep deprived and wouldn’t eat. First, he was diagnosed with schizophrenia and later severe depression but when you look back, he had all the classic signs of depression.”
John says there was little reliable information available at the time and finding a way through the network of services was impossible. “As a family, we seemed to roll from one crisis to another. We weren’t ashamed of his illness. We talked openly about his challenges and Shane never hid from it either. He would have loved to have found a treatment that worked, but unfortunately he never did.”
After years of treatment and not getting the right medication, Shane passed away in 1993, 10 years after he was first diagnosed.
“The shock we experienced after Shane’s death was soul-destroying. It’s the worst possible thing you could have happen to any individual or family, but the support we got from the community at the time was outstanding.”
In 1986, approximately three years after Shane was diagnosed, his elder brother Darren was also diagnosed with schizophrenia.
However, John says that in contrast to Shane’s sad story, Darren’s story is one of hope. “Darren was put onto medication that is readily available today, and it has provided an outstanding result for him. It shows that with the right treatment, the right kinds of family support and encouragement, and the right kind of community support, you can achieve a great result.”
Darren now lives independently and works as a private in-home carer to intellectually disabled young adults.
“He does it very well and he loves the work. It’s a good news story.”
John is proud of his long association with beyondblue, both as a Board Director and as an Ambassador. He speaks publicly about his family’s experience of mental illness to raise awareness and to reduce the stigma and embarrassment that people often feel.
“Times have changed. By and large beyondblue has normalised discussion about depression and anxiety, and as a consequence mental illness generally. People no longer cringe and want to sweep it under the carpet, which means people who need help are less likely to feel ashamed and more likely to take action to get treatment.”
John remains the Chair of The Mental Health Professionals Network (MHPN) which has a board of directors representing four member organisations: The Royal Australian College of General Practitioners, Australian Psychological Society, The Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists and the Australian College of Mental Health Nurses.
The MHPN also involves three partner organisations: the Australian Association of Social Workers, Occupational Therapy Australia and The Royal Australasian College of Physicians.
MHPN works in collaboration with its member and partner organisations to ensure that MHPN project activities support the Government's agenda to improve consumers' access to mental health care.