News

The Hon Julia Gillard AC delivers the City of Sydney CityTalks keynote address

29 October 2019

I want to speak to you about three things that are inextricably linked to improving our nation and this city’s (Sydney) sense of mental well-being; conversation, community and combatting discrimination.

But first let me invite you to imagine what this city would be like if everyone in it achieved their best possible mental health.

Of course, that wouldn’t mean lives free of stress, grief and sadness.  Part of being human is that we journey through ups and downs and 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It can track through irritability, lapses in concentration or anger and move toward negative self-talk when we become withdrawn, over-tired and work or study is affected.

By the time you reach red you are in a mental health crisis and possibly having suicidal thoughts. You need expert care.

But it doesn’t have to be like this.

We all take a step towards wellbeing when people talk openly about mental health, mental illness and suicide prevention, when support is known about, joined up, accessible and affordable, when stigma and discrimination are stared down and diversity and respect are embraced.

With early intervention, many people who develop mental health conditions can and do recover.

They never hit the red and they move back into the green.

And many will never experience that condition again or, 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.

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.

Most shocking of all, on average, we lose eight Australians every day to suicide, double the national road toll. 

Six of these eight deaths are men.

Members of our LGBTI communities, those who experience depression, those who are homeless or in insecure housing, young people exposed to physical or emotional trauma are also at greater risk.

Yet, around half those with a mental health condition still do not access support or treatment.

These figures are daunting and, you may be thinking, ‘what can I do in the face of a challenge that seems overwhelming?’

CONVERSATION

The answer is each of us can be a change agent by being prepared to talk about mental health.  Every conversation in which mental ill health is discussed openly and candidly reduces stigma.

Even in the most confronting situations, talking helps.

A couple of years ago Beyond Blue commissioned research to explore how we can mobilise people to play a role in preventing suicide.

That study confirms 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.

Too many people still believe that asking someone directly whether they are contemplating suicide raises the risk they will attempt to take their lives. 

That it will put the idea in someone’s head.

That it will make things worse.

Worryingly, the research found that half the community believes assisting someone at risk of suicide requires the skills of a professional.

We can appreciate why.

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, to show they care and offer 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 such a serious and tricky subject.

And that’s why we joined forces with Lifeline, headspace, Black Dog, R U OK? and others 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’.

I ask all of you to get involved and learn about how you can talk.

COMMUNITY

I also ask you to think about how we can strengthen our focus on mental health and supporting each other in the community spaces we share. 

Of course, we live in a globally connected age when we can pull out our phones and instantly access information about what is happening in any part of the world.

But for all that digital connectivity, life is still very much about the physical places that bring us together; school, work, sport, the arts.

That’s why Beyond Blue, with the support of the Federal Government and our partners Early Childhood Australia and headspace, is rolling out Be You.

Be You is available free to every school and early learning centre.

Our hardworking teachers and early learning educators are in a pivotal position to enhance mental health.

They may be the first to notice that a normally happy student is acting differently, is withdrawing from friends, is disengaged in class and acting out.

An educator may notice that something is not right but may not know what’s wrong.

Or what to do about it.

Be You brings support and resources which make it easier for busy school and early learning service staff to look after their own wellbeing and get help for kids in need.

Launched almost a year ago, already across the greater Sydney region, 747 schools and 485 early learning services have signed up.

For those who are out of school and in the world of work, you might want to have a look at the free Heads Up program, a one stop shop and guide to creating mentally healthy workplaces.

Clearly there is a need for this given when we surveyed more than one thousand employees from all kinds of workplaces, sectors and industries across Australia, we found 71 per cent of CEOs and senior leaders believed they were committed to promoting the mental health of their staff but only 37 per cent of their staff agreed.

That is what you call a management reality check.

If you are an employer or manager or among the more than 60 per cent of employees who believe their workplaces need change, get involved in Heads Up.

But life isn’t all about work.

Russell Crowe is right when he says: “The best things about Sydney are free. The sunshine is free. The harbour is free. The beaches are free.”

Taking a friend and going for a walk or just sitting together and watching the waves roll in, volunteering at a local sporting club or getting involved in the activities at your local library – all these things are good for your mental health.

Russell can add one more to his list: getting a sense of connection is free.

COMBATTING DISCRIMINATION

Building community is about these shared spaces, but it is also about individual attitudes, about combatting discrimination.

Imagine not getting the job you’re qualified for because of the colour of your skin; to know you are being followed by a store detective when all you’re looking for is a birthday card for a mate; to feel the stranger beside you slip sideways to create a greater distance.

Racism is a moral wrong.  It is also bad for mental health and wellbeing – it causes and perpetuates high levels of social and emotional distress.

There is also a ‘dose’ effect for psychological distress caused by racism: the more a person is exposed to it, the greater the impact.

That is why Beyond Blue launched the Invisible Discriminator campaign in 2014.

The campaign – the most viewed and shared in our 20-year history – highlights the routine, everyday impact of subtle racism on the social and emotional wellbeing of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

It aims to challenge and change people’s often unconscious behaviours.

To think before they laugh along – even uncomfortably – at a racist joke in the pub.

To think about why they don’t take the only empty seat beside an Aboriginal person on a crowded bus.

The community’s reaction to this campaign was strong and positive.

But it was the reaction from Indigenous people that was most revealing.

They told us they loved the campaign because it showed we had noticed that, for them, every day could be a little tougher than it should be.

But, of course, there are also days of grace and good humour.

Greg, one of the actors involved in that campaign, shares a funny story about being on a bus when the commercials were airing: A woman got on and recognised him. He knew immediately, from the look on her face, she was going to sit beside him. And she did. Funny thing was the bus was practically empty. She could have sat anywhere.

Just like the woman who joined Greg on the bus, we all have a role to play.

For non-Indigenous Australians, our collective failure to face up to all the brutal truth of our history and its ongoing effects holds us back.

For First Nations people, the interconnected issues of cultural dislocation, personal trauma and the ongoing stresses of disadvantage, racism and exclusion are absolutely contributing to their heightened risk of mental health issues, substance misuse and suicide.

These words have special poignancy as we gather not far from the site where 231 years ago, Aboriginal people watched as the First Fleet dropped anchor. 

We are also not far from Redfern where Prime Minister Paul Keating explained what happened following that moment in the following memorable words:

We took the traditional lands and smashed the traditional way of life.

We brought the diseases. The alcohol…

We committed the murders.

We took the children from their mothers.

We practised discrimination and exclusion.

It was our ignorance and our prejudice.

And our failure to imagine these things being done to us.

With some noble exceptions, we failed to make the most basic human response and enter into their hearts and minds.

We failed to ask - 'how would I feel if this were done to me?

At Beyond Blue, we believe we must understand and answer that question with an open heart and caring mind. 

Fundamentally, we must stand alongside Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and communities.

This is central to our mental health and suicide prevention mission, given suicide has emerged in the past half century as a major cause of premature mortality and a contributor to the overall life expectancy gap for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. 

Here in NSW, as in the rest of the country, Indigenous Australians are at an increased risk of taking their own lives. (17.1 against 11.1 per 100,000).

Suicide is the fifth leading cause of death for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, compared with 12th for non-Indigenous Australians.

Despite Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples comprising around 3 per cent of the population, they account for 30 per cent of the suicide deaths among those aged under 18.

Beyond Blue urges our current leaders on all sides of the parliamentary chamber to heed the call of the Uluru Statement from the Heart.

We also urge the adoption of mental health and suicide prevention targets in COAG’s Closing the Gap strategy.

Friends, as Australians we are a commonwealth of complexities: we are multicultural, multi-racial, of all genders and gender identities, sexualities, shapes and sizes, abilities and disabilities.

We are from the burbs and the bush. We are religious, agnostic and atheist.

No matter who we are or what we look like, we are entitled to dignity, respect and to have our mental health free from the pressures and perils of discrimination. 

Making sure everyone, every day, feels valued and not belittled requires action from all of us.

REFORM

Tonight, I have talked about conversation, community and combatting discrimination; about what each of us can do to foster better mental health where we live, work, learn and play.

But before I conclude, I do want to say a few words about how governments need to come together to ensure that mental health services and supports are available in a way that means people can access the right help at the right time. 

Our current system is clunky, full of the gaps and holes that often come when the federal and state governments have shared responsibility.

But don’t take those words to mean there is an absence of political focus on doing better.

Quite the reverse.

Indeed, never before has public sentiment, political will and the mental health sector been so aligned.

There is unprecedented attention and a lot going on.

Nationally, the Productivity Commission is hard at work on its inquiry into mental health.

It has a unique remit to look across all levels of government and into all of the portfolios that protect or impact our mental health – not just health but housing, employment, education, the justice system.

In fact, the Commission will deliver its interim report to the federal government this Thursday.

I urge the mental health sector and the community generally to grab enthusiastically and with both hands the opportunity this gives us to imagine, and then create, a true mental health support system that puts people first.

A system that offers a range of services, from recovery clinics and community-based care to acute beds in hospitals and alternatives to emergency departments.

A system that combines online therapies, digital apps, phone, video and face-to-face support.

A system that can provide the same level of care in Blacktown as it does in Balmain; one that is equitable for all income or education levels, age, ethnicity and postcodes.

And one that develops and values new workforces – peer workers and coaches who can bring their personal experiences of life to life in the work they do – employed alongside mental health professionals in a cost-effective, broad-reaching, universal system of care.

Let me give you examples of the kinds of innovations that can make a real difference to people’s lives.

One is called NewAccess.

Originally developed by Beyond Blue, it’s an early intervention service, which is free, doesn’t need a doctor’s referral and is staffed by coaches who support people with mild to moderate symptoms of anxiety and depression.

It’s available in South Western Sydney, Central and Eastern Sydney and several places in regional New South Wales.

It’s achieving remarkable results – and we know this because we measure the clinical and wellbeing outcomes at every point of contact between the person and their coach.

Twenty-five and a half thousand people have made their own safety plan using the BeyondNow smartphone app to help them through a suicidal crisis. 

Their plan is always at hand, at the bus stop, in the park, at the footy.

With the Productivity Commission’s work to help chart the way forward, we have an historic opportunity to upscale and innovate, not bit by bit, but right across the whole mental health support system. 

We can change the current patchwork of services into a true safety net.

That should give us a spirit of optimism about the future, provided we all work together and don’t let this chance go by.

CONCLUSION

Another thing that should make us feel optimistic, is the following fact:

Each year around 1.3 million people visit Beyond Blue’s peer Online Forums to share advice and support one another.  It is the fastest growing service on our books.

Most people saw a reduction in symptoms after their last forum visit. 

The fact these online spaces are so popular shows people are acting on their mental health. They are reaching out earlier – to one another, for themselves and those they care about – before a crisis emerges.

After all, isn’t that what conversation, community and combatting discrimination is all about? Looking out for each other.

By being here tonight, you too are showing you are prepared to act on your mental health and look out for each other.

I thank you for that and I congratulate the City of Sydney for striving to be a city for all, a city that cares.

I look forward to the rest of our discussions tonight.

And I thank you.

ENDS

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