Address, 2019 Australian Mental Health Prize

06 Nov 2019
Kensington, NSW
Prime Minister

PRIME MINISTER: Well, thank you, Ita. Before I do that, I promise I won’t to delay you long before announcing the recipients of the awards tonight. If you'd forgive me to say just a couple of things.

Firstly, in appreciation to the traditional custodians of the land the Bidjigal people, elders, past, present and those who are emerging. And also any veterans who are with us here today and those who have served our Defence Forces. Particularly pertinent today, Christine and I this morning met with the parents of brave men who'd taken their own lives after serving our country during their service. And we owe them everything as a country.

To the Chancellor and the Vice-Chancellor and members of the faculty who are here with us and particularly to you, Ita. One of the reasons I asked Ita to take on the job of being the Chair of the ABC is not just because of her outstanding success and career in journalism. It's because she's always had a broader view of the country and understood the many challenges the country has faced. She's written about them through initiatives such as this. She has invested heavily in helping Australians understand who they are and the challenges they face so thank you very much, Ita, for your continued work, particularly in this field.

Can I also acknowledge Lucy Brogden who is here and other members of the advisory board working together with Christine. You do a tremendous job and we really appreciate what you do. And I know there are other members of the board here as well. It's great to be back here as alumni, of course, Chancellor. Back then, I knew I wasn't the smartest person in the room and today I know that's also true.


But it is the 70th anniversary of the University of New South Wales, and I congratulate you all on that achievement. But I can add a few more. The Foreign Minister is an alumni, Marise Payne. The Minister for the NDIS and Government Services, Stuart Robert, is also an alumni. I suspect there may be one or two others. So the University of New South Wales has a great place in the hearts of our Government, as I'm sure it does right across the Parliament. 

The issue of mental health is a very personal one, I think, to all Australians. And the nominees who are here with us today know that better than any of us. And can I congratulate all of you on the work that you do and the leadership that you show. I am the son of a policeman, the brother of a paramedic and the brother-in-law of a firie. And so I have somewhat of an insight into the lives of those who work in those services and as first responders. Most recently, when I was in Christchurch, where I was there to attend the memorial service after the terrible terrorist attack there, I spent some time that day with the first responders to that event. An absolutely horrific scene. And whether it is in the stress and strain of an event like that or just the daily life and stress and anxieties, as the Professor was explaining to us and people walking into emergency rooms, I describe suicide as a curse on our society and a curse that we must break as a society, as a community and all of our finalists tonight have been applying themselves to that very task and I'm grateful for the work that you do. We've heard the statistics we know, in particular, veterans are 2.2 times more likely to take their lives. We know that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are also especially vulnerable. We know that young people and we know that a whole range of discrete communities within our broad society are vulnerable. We've heard from the Productivity Commission and we're fashioning our response now.

But I find it very hard to go past the personal when thinking about mental health issues. I remember I was quite young, I was nine, I think I was, and my father came to talk to me about an older boy that my brother and I knew had been part of a youth organisation that my father had been running for many years. And I knew him but I can't say I knew him well. He was much older than me. But he came to tell us that he had taken his own life and he jumped off the Gap. And this was my first encounter with suicides as a young person and it stuck with me ever since, because in my own head, in my happy childhood in a loving home, I could never contemplate a set of circumstances or a feeling of such desperation that could lead you to that decision. And I still find it incredibly difficult, as I'm sure you do, too. But you have a much greater understanding of these things because this is the field you work in. But it is just the sheer desperate sadness and coming to terms with that which just focuses my attention and that of our Government more broadly. That this is something we just must try everything we can and this is the task that I’ve given Christine. If you think you've got a hard job, she has one of the hardest there is but has a great passion for it. Because there are new things we can try, there are new models we can work, there are many things to learn, there is greater care that we can provide, there is more research to understand where the vulnerability points are. And we’ve been doing a lot of that work. And I hope that what we're doing and what we will do will lead to those situations not presenting themselves for our fellow Australians where they make that choice.

I get a lot of letters from people, I get about three thousand a week in emails. A father of three children, he's my age. He wrote about the loss of a child in a car accident and then another child, a suicide months later. A teenage boy who wrote to me and came out to me in the letter he wrote to me and told me about the anxieties and fears that he has. A lovely couple who I met at a wedding Jenny and I out in Penrith and we had a photo together with their whole family and her mother wrote to me about a year later to let me know the young boy in that photo had taken his life and now they’re trying to cope with that. Farmers, people living in rural districts and communities as they battle through the drought or the floods covering them in north Queensland. Small business owners suffering under tremendous stress. One of the things we recently announced in our small business package was to provide mental health support to people who are in small business.

There are so many of these and you know the stories. We have a Royal Commission, which is proceeding in Victoria. I've spent quite a bit of time with the Premier there about how we can align the various initiatives that we're involved in together, supporting various community organisations that have such a role to play, whether it's men's sheds or tradies from the whole program in regional Victoria or other critical support that we provide, particularly in the new facilities we’ve provided up in the Sunshine Coast of Queensland. We've committed already some $5.3 billion in mental health services this year alone, over a half a billion for our youth mental health and suicide prevention plan, the biggest one this country's ever embarked on. Our investment in youth mental health aligns with the Productivity Commission findings that mental illness tends to first emerge in younger people with 75 per cent mental illness manifesting before the age of 25. $110 million to support young people experiencing psychosis, expansion of headspace centres to 153 across Australia with great input from Professor McGorry. A renewed focus on rural and regional communities. $34 million for Indigenous Youth Suicide Prevention, establish a national plan for culturally appropriate care that is particularly focussed on the terrible tragedies we're seeing up in The Kimberley. The Medical Research Future Fund is investing in important research in this area. But I’ve got to tell you, things like Batyr take my breath away when I see what they do in communities. One of the other programs we funded was in the Smiling Minds program, which I think is a tremendous thing to help build the resilience of younger people, which we have to invest in, in preventative mental health programs, which I think is so important.

So what I can tell you and what I can commit to you, there's plenty of other things that they would like me to say tonight. But really what I wanted to say to you above all is we're very committed to this and we're very personally committed. There is absolutely no politics in this at all. There is strong support for this across the political divide. We all look at these statistics, but more importantly, know our own stories of people we know found in garages with belts around their, with young kids. We all know these stories and they just keep bringing us back, I think it makes us so determined to continue to focus on the actions we need to take as a community, as governments, as researchers, as scientists, as clinicians, as community leaders, as sports coaches, as whoever needs to be there to make the difference.

So I want to thank you for making a difference, all of you, and particularly our nominees. And I want to thank you not just for the efforts that you've already made, but I know the efforts you're going to continue to make and make a real difference in the lives of Australians. And together we will break this curse on Australian society. And will not only do that, but we will therefore become, I think, a role model to the rest of the world that is struggling with the same challenges. And Australia can provide a new way forward and leadership and provide people with that hope, which so sadly on these occasions when they take their own life, they have lost all.

So with that, thank you, and I'm pleased to announce the recipients of tonight's awards. They are - and there are two - Joe Williams and Christine Morgan.


Christine and Joe, I'll leave it to you.