John Brogden: Facing the Blues

By Fran Molloy BA '85

John Brogden recalls his graduation ceremony in the Great Hall at the University as one of his “proudest moments”. The former NSW Opposition Leader was awarded the degree of Master of Public Affairs in 2002 – a qualification he had completed part-time while serving as the Member for Pittwater.

His graduation audience included his proud mentor Ted Pickering, a former NSW Police Minister, who had long encouraged Brogden to return to his university studies.

On leaving school, Brogden trained to become a teacher but left to work as a political staffer for a number of ministers. He joined the Liberal Party while still at school and was President of the NSW Young Liberals in 1992 and 1993. After several unsuccessful attempts at pre-selection, he was elected to the NSW Parliament as the Member for Pittwater in 1996.

Image of John Brogden

Brogden says that the flexible delivery of the Master of Public Affairs degree – cutting-edge at that time – was the only reason he could complete his studies at the University.

“The taxpayers of NSW should know that most of my assignments were written at two in the morning,” jokes Brogden, who praises the weekend lectures and internet delivery of assignments, high-profile international visiting lecturers and accelerated coursework options.

These days, Brogden heads the Financial Services Council of Australia, overseeing the investment of an estimated $1.4 trillion through superannuation, funds management and life insurance organisations. He is also the Patron of Lifeline and a keen advocate for mental health services.

Brogden’s sponsorship has been a shot in the arm for mental health lobbyists. He wields considerable clout, both through his influential connections in politics and in corporate Australia and through achingly honest revelations about his own struggle with mental illness.

Brogden’s achievements as a politician were considerable. In 1996, at just 27, he was the youngest member elected to the NSW Legislative Assembly, and by 2002, aged 35, he had taken over from Kerry Chikarovski (BEc ’77 LLB ’79) to become the youngest leader of a state or federal Liberal Party.

Behind the scenes, though, his brilliant career hid a private despair. For around a decade, Brogden battled with undiagnosed depression. Despite the support of his wife Lucy, the birth of his much longed for child and the admiration of political colleagues, he recalls feeling isolated and inadequate – and very, very unhappy.

“I was untouchable and unreachable in this splendid isolation and quiet panic,” he later wrote about that time.

Ignoring the signs

There were signs, but few could see them. He had poor sleep patterns and little appetite and was constantly anxious. Any criticism wounded him deeply and his self-esteem was in tatters. His wife suspected depression and suggested as much but he didn’t consider it for a moment. Brogden now says that he had no self-awareness – but would have laughed at anyone who suggested that to him. He was irritable at home and a tyrant to his staff, but could justify all of this to himself because of the immense pressure of his work.

And what pressure it was; whenever he felt inadequate – which was often – he would work harder. Any gaps opening up in his diary were instantly filled with more and more commitments.
“All that work led to some spectacular results. But in my mind, I was on a never-ending escalator.”

All he could see ahead, was more of the same pressure and intensity. And he never felt up to the task, constantly seeking reassurance but never believing the praise. He recalls the first time he sat in his enormous new office as Opposition Leader, just after Easter 2002. The huge desk was empty and the task ahead daunting – and he felt incredibly lonely.

“I remember thinking, yes – it’s lonely at the top,” he says. But the cliché offered no comfort.

Finally, it was Brogden’s spectacular and very public fall from grace in 2005 that sent his promising career on an entirely different trajectory – and forced him to face his own mental illness. He was hospitalised following a suicide attempt, the night after his resignation as Opposition Leader and following a series of inappropriate events including a widely-reported insult of Helena Carr, wife of the then-premier. He had been pilloried in the media, his reputation was in tatters and he felt an overwhelming sense of shame. While he says that the media and the weight of public disapproval played some role in his breakdown, he is quick to accept much of the responsibility himself.

Society is changing and is more accepting of mental illness

Brogden resigned his seat and underwent treatment for many months. Accepting the diagnosis of depression was a big step. The 10,000-plus letters of support he received from the public, and countless messages and offers of support from colleagues on both sides of politics, also buoyed him. But returning to a political career was “not an option for me,” he says.

He recalls then-premier Morris Iemma offering him parliamentary leave while he recovered, but it was too daunting a prospect.

“I imagined media headlines, if I took my child to a playground – this is what the taxpayers of NSW are funding.”

Things are different now, he says, citing the widespread acceptance of federal Liberal MP, Andrew Robb taking several months off in 2009 to undergo treatment for depression.

“Society is changing and is more accepting of mental illness,” Brogden says, citing high-profile people publicly talking about their illness and the increased education campaigns. But, he adds, there’s still quite a way to go.

After months away from work, Brogden felt ready to return, and says he will be forever grateful to the board of health insurance company Manchester Unity, which had enough faith in his previous achievements to appoint him CEO. This eventually led to his current appointment, as high-profile CEO of the Financial Services Council of Australia.

Managing mental health

Six years later, he continues treatment for his own depression and says that every person with a mental illness has a social obligation to accept treatment and try to manage their illness.

“I know this can be a controversial thing to say and that for some people, the side effects of medication can be difficult. Yes, you might put on weight for example but it is better to be fat and happy than to try to carry on skinny and in denial.”

Suicide is the greatest mental health issue facing Australians, Brogden says, rattling off some clearly familiar – and startling – statistics. Suicide is the leading cause of death in Australia for men under 44 and for women under 34. And more people die by suicide each year than on the roads. Yet it’s preventable, he says. Lifeline has helped countless Australians in crisis, and simply by recognising that there is a problem and encouraging someone to get help, mental health crises can be reduced. People with a mental illness will rarely tell their employer, he says.

“They fear they won’t be treated normally in the workplace.”

But just as corporate Australia must play a role in de-stigmatising mental illness in the workplace, he says, employers can also be positive in helping a staff member seek help.

“If someone came into work with blood running down their face, we’d send them straight to the emergency ward,” he says. “And if someone comes into work smelling bad, they haven’t washed for a few days, if they are disoriented, if their behaviour changes, these are all signs that they need help. But we don’t address the signs of mental illness as something medical.”

Talking about his own mental illness publicly has been a huge challenge for Brogden; it is clear, listening to him speak about it, that it is still a struggle. But talking about mental illness and talking about suicide is something that he believes we must do, if we are to limit the damage it is doing to our society.

“We need to get to the stage where someone is just as comfortable talking at a dinner party about their treatment for depression as their knee surgery or cancer treatment.”