Monday, 26 March, 2018


Mental health and wellbeing were a focus of the HRF Centre’s recent Upper Hunter economic breakfast. Professor Alan Hayes, Director of the University’s Family Action Centre, spoke about a new initiative to address social disadvantage in Muswellbrook.

The Muswellbrook Strong Families–Capable Communities initiative aims to address significant child and adolescent challenges. Obesity, behavioural and wellbeing problems are substantially higher in Muswellbrook than the State average. These problems have long-term negative impacts on development, health and wellbeing. They require a coordinated, collaborative approach, combined with early intervention.

One of several projects piloted last year as part of the initiative is the placement of four Occupational Therapy (OT) students in three Muswellbrook schools in Term 4. Professor Hayes said one in 10 students at the trial schools had seen an OT student, who received supervision from accredited practitioners. All the schools wanted to continue the program throughout 2018.

The OT placement is intended to be the forerunner for a more ambitious plan to expand student placements in schools using a poly-clinic model, Professor Hayes said. He sees the opportunity for multiple student placements from allied health and medicine disciplines to address obesity, behavioural and wellbeing problems. In addition to occupational therapy, he proposed adding nutrition and dietetics, and physiotherapy students. A second stage could see students from medicine, speech therapy and psychology added to the model. 

There may also be potential to add other disciplines, such as community nursing and social work, in subsequent stages of development, Professor Hayes said of the school-based polyclinic model. The initiative could also be extended to other communities.

Professor Hayes joined Andrew McMahon, CEO of MATES in Mining and Pauline Carrigan, Founder of Where There’s a Will Foundation, in a panel discussion on mental health and suicide.

Pauline Carrigan says one in four young Australians aged 16–24 years has a mental health issue. Suicide is the leading cause of death in 15 to 44 year olds and someone dies from suicide every 4 hours in Australia. The World Health Organisation predicts that by 2030, depression will be the leading health burden globally. 

Mrs Carrigan established Where There's a Will in 2016 to address significant mental health issues facing the Upper Hunter community. They do this by supporting schools to build positive learning communities that embed the teaching of resilience and wellbeing in their curriculum and in their schools.

One of initiatives funded by Where there’s a Will is the roll-out of the Visible Wellbeing program to 19 Upper Hunter schools. Professor Lea Waters from the University of Melbourne said the initiative will see more than 400 teachers engaged in a journey over the next two years. They will learn wellbeing practices that can be integrated into every lesson and every project from pre-school through to Year 12.

"Visible Wellbeing is about creating an environment in schools where everyone feels welcome,” Carrigan said. “Too much money is being put into treatment in Australia and not enough into schools, where we have an opportunity to intervene at the start.”

While prevention is their primary focus, Where there’s a Will has also introduced broader community education initiatives such as Youth Mental Health First Aid. Carrigan advocated at the breakfast for a nation-wide positive advertising campaign to raise awareness about mental health.

“I remember the Slip, Slop, Slap sun-safe campaign of the 80s,” she said. “Now, as a result of those messages, Australians have changed their behaviour. We are all aware of the dangers and how to protect ourselves and our children from the sun.”

At the moment, most Australians don’t think they need to learn mental health first aid, because it isn’t their problem, she said.

“I didn’t think my family would be impacted by mental ill health until it knocked on our door,” she said. “The figures show it affects all of us. We need to increase awareness about the need to learn about mental health.”

MATES in Mining was modelled on MATES in Construction, a Queensland initiative that has been addressing high suicide rates in the Construction industry since 2008. Suicide has a significant impact on workers in these industries. It is the leading cause of death for Australian males aged 25-44 years and females aged 25-34 years. World Health Organisation estimates that for every death by suicide three suicide survivors will suffer permanent full incapacity and 12 will require time off work.

Research has shown that men in semi-skilled occupations are at high risk of suicide. For example, suicide rates amongst male operators and labourers in the Australian construction industry is very high. McMahon said that although suicide data for the Australian mining industry is not readily available, the workforce is predominantly male, aged 25-44 years, and many are employed as operators and in manual labour occupations.

“Australian men are terrible at asking for help,” he said. “We are teaching people what to look out for in their mates at work. We need to overcome the stigma that exists around talking about mental health.”

MATES in Mining trained over 2,000 mine workers in mental health awareness in 2017. They have conducted training at four Hunter coal mines, with more Upper Hunter sites set to roll out this year. McMahon said they plan to create more communities of ‘MATES who look out for MATES’ throughout the Upper Hunter.

The breakfast was held at Muswellbrook RSL on Wednesday, 14 March. View Professor Hayes’ presentation.