Ian Hickie: safeguarding Australia's mental health
5 November 2006
When the Australian Financial Review printed its list of the ten most influential Australians of the last year, one Sydney University name appeared on the list.
Ian Hickie, executive director of the Brain and Mind Research Institute, was named as a 'cultural power' along with the likes of Nobel Prize winner Barry Marshall.
As a long-term campaigner for improved mental health services, particularly in young people, Professor Hickie has led a national campaign that has persuaded the Federal Government to allocate $1.9 billion to deal with the problem.
But the award also acknowledged his success in getting the Prime Minister and other federal and state government leaders to recognise mental health as a national problem requiring urgent attention. "Mental health has been neglected for decades simply because most people don't think it is a real health issue," he says.
"Some people might think that John Howard would be difficult to persuade, but that is not true," he says. "He is a father of grown children, and is certainly aware of young people's mental health issues."
Professor Hickie is himself a father of six children, and was raised in a family of seven children. It comes as no surprise that his career should have focussed on such an intensely personal issue as mental health.
The situation in Australia is certainly alarming: 800,000 adults plus 100,000 children and teenagers suffer from some sort of depression every year. One in four women and one in six men have an episode of clinical depression. "And there are still many people who haven't been diagnosed or received any treatment," he notes. In fact, most people with depression treat themselves with alcohol, cannabis or other drugs, especially young people.
"I think we need to deal with the inadequate systems of care, not just treat individuals," he says. In his campaign to raise awareness of mental health, he admits he has become something of a hybrid, part academic, part politician.
He has invoked the help of the media, non-government organisations and politicians - and has even mastered the art of the telling soundbite: "We are facing a 21st century problem with a 19th century health system," he points out.
His experience extends well beyond the University. Last year he co-authored a national report, Not for Service, with the Human Rights and Equal Opportunities Commission and the Mental Health Council of Australia. The 1,000 page report detailed the experiences of those receiving mental health care in every state and territory. Previously he was chief executive and then clinical advisor to beyondblue, the national depression initative.
In 2003 he was appointed the inaugural executive director of the University's Brian and Mind Research Institute, the first centre to bring together neurologists, psychiatrists, neuroscientists, brain researchers, patients and support groups to undertake joint research.
A firm believer in applied research, Professor Hickie says he feels no sense of frustration at working in a University environment. "The University's current leadership has created a fabulous opportunity. It gives us the space and the environment to bring together basic research and clinical and public health applications," he says.
He admits that the government's $1.9 billion additional funding is short of the total needed to overhaul the system. "But at the moment, they are listening, so it's the right time to make our voice heard," he said.
Medicine is in Ian Hickie's blood: his father, cardiologist Professor John Hickie, is currently enrolled in his third year at the University studying for a master's degree in medical humanities at the age of 80.
Ian is now looking at the mental health of the wider Asia Pacific region. With colleagues in 14 Asian countries he recently launched the Social and Economic Burdens of Depression initiative which aims to improve mental health in the region and reduce the suicide rate. "We have a responsibility to help our neighbours," he says, "when they are struggling with the same problems and have even fewer resources."
Summing up his success, one of Ian Hickie's colleagues says it's all a matter of charisma, coupled with remarkable powers of explanation and persuasion. "When he talks, everybody listens. Even the Prime Minister."
Contact: Richard North
Phone: 02 93513720