Chair of Beyond Blue, The Hon. Julia Gillard, AC
Thank you Christian [the MC].
And thank you Aunty Florence for that very warm Welcome to Country. I too would like to 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.
It is an honour to be here at the launch of Townsville: Australia’s First Mentally Healthy City among so many distinguished guests and community members.
I would particularly like to acknowledge Air Chief Marshal Sir Angus Houston, Dr Cathy Day, Professor Maxwell Bennett, Professor Sue McGinty and Dr Lynore Geia from the Tropical Brain and Mind Institute, Ms Cathy O'Toole MP, Member for Herbert and Professor Brett McDermott from James Cook University, who I know so well as a former Director on the Board of Beyond Blue.
May I also acknowledge the Mayor of Townsville, Jenny Hill, and representatives from the North Queensland Primary Health Network.
I’ve lost count of how many times I have been to Townsville. One of the great privileges of being in Australian politics is the constant access you have to communities right around the nation. People really want you to understand and appreciate their town, their region, their home.
And I never found people backwards about coming forwards in Townsville. You definitely wanted me to understand that this thriving community is very proud of its world class education facilities, leading edge health care, spectacular events and entertainment and, of course, over 300 days of sunshine a year.
You also wanted me to appreciate that this is a place of contrasts, with 80 per cent of the population Australian-born – making it among the highest of any city – yet home to many diverse population groups, such as:
- Australia’s largest army base at Lavarack Barracks with 4,500 soldiers and their families;
- the RAAF Townsville and;
- a large veteran population;
- Indigenous people both within the city and on Palm Island;
- the agricultural community made up of graziers, growers and their families;
- FIFO workers on mining sites;
- migrant groups and their descendants;
- aged citizens;
- and young people.
Each with their own cultures, priorities and needs.
But also with the ability to develop a shared vision and drive for change.
And that’s what tonight is all about – a shared vision for a mentally healthy city and being prepared to come together to take the practical steps necessary to make it happen.
How far we have come
The very fact that we are having an event like this one tonight shows us how far we have come.
Nobody talked about their mental health when Jeff Kennett founded Beyond Blue 18 years ago to increase awareness in Australia about depression.
Back in 2000 ours was a start-up organisation of just nine people.
Today it is one of the most recognised not-for-profits in Australia, and our remit has grown to cover anxiety conditions and suicide prevention.
While we still attend to our core purpose of raising awareness of mental health issues and tackling stigma and discrimination, Beyond Blue is now firmly in the business of service delivery with early intervention and prevention programs.
Our initiatives and resources are accessed by millions of people wherever they happen to be: in schools and early learning services, at work or home, in person or over the phone, through online programs or in their pockets via smartphone apps.
Our Ambassadors and Speakers bureau has over 200 members who publicly share their personal mental health stories to encourage others to take action and get support if they need it.
Anyone in Australia can join blueVoices – our reference group and online community for those with personal experience of depression, anxiety or suicide – in fact, we have four blueVoices members right here in Townsville.
Our Online Forums are a platform on our website where people experiencing any psychological distress can come and talk to empathetic others who share similar experiences.
We have a thriving online forum community and over 250,000 unique visitors per month; or 2.9 million a year and climbing.
And there are 101 Online Forums members from the 4810 postcode.
But at Beyond Blue we are always keen to keep innovating, to multiply our impact. And it’s that spirit of always looking to do better that has brought me here tonight. In partnering with the Townsville: Australia’s First Mentally Healthy City project, at Beyond Blue, we are doing something we have never done before.
We are collaborating with you to see how the services and resources we offer can be leveraged in one geographic area as part of a whole community effort for change.
And we are really enthusiastic about working with you in this way because it is exactly what the experts say needs to happen.
That local communities, all levels of government, service providers and academics need to come together to promote wellbeing, prevent ill health and connect people to supports and services when they need them.
To do so in a consciously local, integrated, coordinated way.
And, importantly, to measure change from the start and evaluate what works and what doesn’t.
Mental health continuum
We also love the concept because it focuses on wellbeing and community connectedness.
These are concepts often overlooked or misrepresented when we use this ubiquitous term ‘mental health’.
Getting back to basics, the World Health Organization defines mental health as:
‘A state of wellbeing in which every individual realises his or her own potential, can cope with normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to contribute to the community.’
Used in this way: mental health is a positive.
But too often people use the term as shorthand for mental health conditions such as depression or anxiety.
At Beyond Blue we have busted out of this positive/negative divide and we describe mental health as a continuum.
Each of us can slide up and down that continuum over the course of our lives because our mental health changes constantly.
Think of it as a traffic light indicator. When we are well we are in the green. We’re connected, thriving, productive.
But our mental health can ebb and flow over time through yellow, amber and orange: It can track through irritability, lapses in concentration or anger and move toward negative self-talk. We can become withdrawn and over-tired and our behaviour changes at work or school.
By the time anyone reaches the red, they are in a mental health crisis and possibly having suicidal thoughts. They need expert care.
But it doesn’t have to be like this.
Communities flourish best when people talk openly about mental health, mental illness and suicide prevention, when support is known about and joined up, when stigma and shame are stared down and diversity and respect are embraced.
And with the right support – early – mental ill health can be prevented and many people who develop mental health conditions can and do recover.
They never hit the red and they quickly move back into the green.
And many will never experience that condition again or, even if they do, they will have learned the strategies and have the support to manage their symptoms.
Understanding this is the first step towards mental health literacy.
Understanding the dimensions of the need is the first step towards feeling a driving sense of urgency about the necessity of change.
We know that:
- One-in-two of us will experience poor mental health at some point in our lifetime;
- One million Australian adults live with depression; and
- Two million with an anxiety condition;
Broken down for your region that means:
- About 100,000 will at some point experience poor mental health;
- More than 8000 are living with depression;
- And there are at least 16,000 who have an anxiety condition.
This is a community problem requiring a community response.
And that is why we are here today.
Everyone in Townsville is a stakeholder in the Mentally Healthy City project.
The Beyond Blue approach fits well with your aim to get everyone involved and to make sure everyone can be a change agent, even in the most confronting of situations.
Our campaigns, our workplace initiative Heads Up, our Support Services and our latest initiative, Be You, supporting every school and early learning service to nurture the mental health and wellbeing of your children and young people, are all designed to get people thinking about, talking about and acting on mental health where they live, work, learn and play.
Our watchwords are promotion, prevention, early intervention and service innovation.
Working with you, we will be adding to that list local coordination and integration.
Because here in Townsville, like every city and town in Australia, a common challenge for people and families when they need support is knowing where to start, where that support is and how to access it as they move up and down the mental health continuum.
Through the Mentally Healthy Townsville project there will be a coming together for better mental health and suicide prevention through:
- Focusing on wellbeing and the importance of protecting our mental health;
- Continuing to build awareness and break down stigma;
- Changing behaviours;
- Promoting high quality services and supports so everyone knows how and when to access them, identifying the gaps;
- And presenting the evidence and outcomes to governments, state and federal, so they invest more efficiently and differently.
Every community has its challenges and in Townsville one of the most pressing is mental health and suicide prevention.
The need is great. And urgent.
Nationally, on any given day more than 200 will feel so desperate they attempt to end their lives and more than eight a day will die by suicide.
These statistics are bad enough but here, in Townsville the suicide rate is three times higher than Australia in general.
By comparison with Queensland’s suicide rate of 21 per 100,000, the overall suicide rate in Townsville and District is 51 per 100,000 – 2.5 times higher.
Areas that are remote and mostly populated by Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islanders have a suicide rate as high as 104.7 per 100,000. That’s five times the state average.
Truly shocking figures.
And in addition we know that young men, aged 15-29 who live outside major cities have a rate of suicide twice that of their metro peers.
Add to these issues the graziers, farmers and growers who – even when they are not in a drought-declared area – have suicide rates 1.5 to 2 times higher than the national average.
We can’t let these numbers numb us. Instead, they must galvanise us – all of us - in to action.
In 2016, Beyond Blue commissioned research to explore how we can mobilise everyday people to play a role in preventing suicide.
That research confirmed several things.
That people are desperately concerned about our suicide rate.
That they want to play a role, but don’t know how.
And that commonly held myths are getting in the way of that.
That still too many people believe that asking someone directly whether they were contemplating suicide raises the risk they would attempt to take their lives.
That it would put the idea in someone’s head.
Or make things worse.
Worryingly, the research found that half the community believe assisting someone at risk of suicide requires the skills of a professional.
We can appreciate why.
This stuff is really confronting.
But these commonly held views aren’t supported by the evidence and, in fact, open, non-judgemental, caring conversations are protective not dangerous or destructive.
The main message is you don’t need to be a psychologist, a GP, or a nurse to check-in with someone you are worried about.
People who have thought about or attempted suicide told us through the research that having someone listen to them with empathy and without judgement, showing that they care and offering support, was the most important thing to them.
Part of the solution, therefore, lies with giving individuals: family, friends, workmates, team-mates the confidence they need to broach this truly difficult subject.
And that’s why we joined forces with Lifeline, headspace, RUOK and others earlier this year to launch the #YouCanTalk campaign.
To give everyone the do’s and don’ts of how to have that conversation, and what to do if the answer is ‘yes, I am thinking about suicide’.
This is just one of many approaches that Beyond Blue will bring to this partnership being launched today.
Why we need to change
Another approach we bring with us is a different sense of how to think about the place of mental health. For some time we at Beyond Blue have been appealing for the mental health sector and the public to think differently about mental health – to think ‘outside of the consulting room’, and ‘outside the health system’ – to take mental health supports to the people, into their comfort zones, rather than expecting them come to us.
What matters most to people is having something meaningful to do, somewhere safe to live, and somewhere they belong.
Yes, having access to good quality, affordable, mental health services is vital.
But it’s equally, if not more important, is to build thriving communities, where people are connected to each other, have a strong sense of purpose and identity, and come together during times of adversity.
The Mentally Healthy City Project is a breakthrough idea; an Australian first, on this broader approach to mental health.
It takes courage and confidence to try something different and lead from the front.
Courage to make a call and confidence to see it through.
From everything I know about Townsville, this community doesn’t lack courage or confidence.
I am sure, Townsville will rise to the challenge and boldly lead the way for the rest of the nation.