Rob Burgess

Published 10:23 PM, 19 Nov 2010 Last update 0:11 AM, 20 Nov 2010

Moments of bipartisan resolve are rare in Parliament House right now, but a ray of light shone in earlier this week in the unlikely form of Jeff Kennett – former Victorian Premier and chairman of Beyond Blue. (And yes, he was sporting a decidedly dodgy ‘tache.)

Addressing a crowd peppered with Labor and Coalition dignitaries, Kennett launched a mental health campaign with a disturbing message for business leaders – there’s an invisible mental health problem in your organisation that could have a dramatic impact on some staff.

The problem relates to ‘peri-natal depressive illnesses’ – the various kinds of depression, from the mild and manageable right through to the severe and life threatening – that are commonly discussed under the catch-all term ‘post-natal depression’.

And why is it invisible? Because it is a problem assumed to only affect women, who are not in the workplace when it strikes. In effect it is ‘secret women’s business’ that men back in the workplace tend to play down.

Not good enough, says Kennett. In fact, mental health issues often afflict the male partner around the birth of a child as well, while they attempt to keep up their work duties and care for their partner at the same time.
And more importantly, demanding workloads can wrong-foot men who, were they not already struggling with a dramatic transition themselves, would do a better job of monitoring the often fragile mental health of their partners.

“There is no doubt a lot of men go to work knowing that they’re leaving at home an issue that they’re having trouble dealing with themselves,” Kennet told Business Spectator after the presentation.

As if to underline how seriously Kennett takes his role with Beyond Blue – the charity founded in 2000 to address Australia’s lack of a “unified national approach to tackling depressive disorders” – he batted away a question from another journalist on the Liberal Party’s chances in the looming Victorian election, saying: “This is much more important that all of that.”During the Beyond Blue presentation, the audience saw heart-wrenching TV ads (viewable here) that will form the back-bone of the new campaign, featuring real mothers who’ve come close to the brink while their partners were at work.

The ad featuring ‘Susan’ is particularly devastating (I would urge readers to watch it right through) – though Susan was on hand as the presentation to assure the crowd that her story “did have a happy ending”.

The new ‘Just speak up’ campaign is the culmination of four years of research on the rates and risk factors associated with peri-natal depression and anxiety, that involved 40,000 pregnant women and 12,000 post-natal women.

Kennett explained how, at the worst end of the spectrum, a few mothers’ each year reach such depths of depression that they take their own or their children’s lives.

Others struggle for years with depression that, if diagnosed, would have been treatable via a number of well-tested therapies – ranging from fairly mild lifestyle changes such as increase physical exercise, through to a host of counselling techniques and medications.

But none of those treatments help if no diagnosis takes place. One of the women featured in the ads, Briony, explained clearly why managers in the workplace fail to recognise what’s going on for male staff.

When men have to take time off because their partner or child is ‘sick’, they may be covering for a situation where their partner is not coping,” she said. “My husband was scared to leave me alone with my kids at some points. If he wasn’t able to just drop things and come home, I’d hate to think what might have happened.

“Somebody needs to be making sure men aren’t taking on big workloads around the time of a birth, and somebody in a senior position needs to have that chat with them and say they will get flexibility to go home if they’re needed – so their pride doesn’t get in the way of them going home. You can’t rely on them to address the issue themselves by bringing it up with management – you have to be proactive.”

As if to reinforce the bi-partisan support for the work of Beyond Blue, Kennett heaped praise on Kevin Rudd for contacting him in 2007 to formally make funding Beyond Blue’s initiatives part of Labor’s platform going into the ‘Kevin 07’ election.

Since leaving politics, Kennett has developed an expansive list of chairman or director roles with half a dozen companies as well as being president of the Carlton football club. Nonetheless it is for his Beyond Blue work that he now gets most exposure – particularly as memories of his controversial years running Victoria between 1992 and 1999 soften.

And while the charity funds dozens of research project and awareness campaigns, covering all kinds of depression and anxiety illnesses, the peri-natal depression program comes at a turning point in attitudes to young parents.

The parental leave measures passed at the end of Labor’s last term come into force from January 1 next year, paying parents at the minimum wage ($570 per week before tax) for 18 weeks. New fathers will get their break from July 1, 2012, with two weeks’ paid paternity leave.

That will help to an extent, though Beyond Blue’s case studies of peri-natal depression show that the problem can run much longer that two weeks, especially when undiagnosed.

Community awareness of the issues is still pretty sketchy. Beyond Blue has found that 52 per cent of people think “it’s normal for women to feel depressed during pregnancy”. The same percentage think “women get post-natal depression because they have unrealistic expectations (of motherhood)”. And 23 per cent think “post-natal depression will go away on its own”.

Kennett argues that keeping an eye on this kind of mental health issue does more than just help out one or two individuals in a workplace – it can breed a more productive culture more widely.

“Every employer has a very real reason for investing, within their workplace in good health practices,” he says. “If you do that they employee is going to look forward to coming to work and perform at maximum capacity, as opposed to just turning up to receive a cash remuneration and performing well below their capacity.”

After the presentation, the pollies who’d turned out to offer Kennett their bipartisan support were soon back in the chamber ripping into each other with end-of-year vigour in question time.

It’s easy to see why the battle-scarred former Liberal Premier sees his Beyond Blue work as “much more important than all that” – and a growing number of young parents helped by the new program are sure to agree.

Source: Business Spectator

Beyond Blue

PANDA Post and Antenatal Depression Association

Australia Breastfeeding Association Postnatal depression and Breastfeeding

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