The thought of interviewing Jeff Kennett, AC, a man with a reputation for being outspoken, controversial and even difficult, was daunting. Knowing his reputation in politics, I was even a little fearful. Will I be like Daniel in the lions’ den? Will I survive?
Kennett, like him or not, proved to be an extremely capable and successful politician, a person with real achievements. Nobody survives 23 years in parliament, including being premier of Victoria for two terms, being mediocre. He’s even been made a Companion of the Order of Australia (AC) “for service to the Victorian Parliament and the introduction of initiatives for economic and social benefit, to business and commerce, and to the community in the development of the arts, sport and mental health awareness strategies.”
All this for a man who “decided not to do university because I wasn’t an academic.” Kennett was born in Melbourne on March 2, 1948, and educated at Scotch College in the Melbourne suburb of Hawthorn. He was enrolled in the Australian National University in Canberra to study law, ended up doing economics and failed all subjects. “I was given the option of coming back the next year. I said, ‘No. I’ve had a year. I’ve blown it. I’ll get out and get on with life.’ “
The next year-1968-he was conscripted into the Australian Army. Kennett was singled out as “officer material” early in his time and graduated third in his class from the gruelling Officer Training Unit in Scheyville, near Windsor, New South Wales.
Thus, when faced with the prospect of interviewing the formidable Mr Kennett, I felt nervous.
But Kennett’s tough, no-nonsense character is also balanced by an obvious concern for the community. And it is this concern that has driven him to establish beyondblue, a national anti-depression initiative, aimed at building “a society that understands and responds to the personal and social impact of depression, works actively to prevent it, and improves the quality of life for everyone affected.”
How does one go from politics to becoming the chairman of a not-forprofit organisation aimed at addressing one of the many ills of society?
“In 1997, two years before I lost office, my daughter came to me after two friends of hers lost their lives in totally unrelated, separate car accidents,” Kennett says. “She was very upset, and she asked me what I could do to stop [young people] dying on the roads. I thought she was challenging me to reduce the road toll, but when we found out more about these two young men’s deaths, we came to the conclusion that while they died as a result of a motor vehicle accident, both of them had been emotionally depressed and both had used their cars to take their lives. This happens a lot with young men and men generally in rural areas of the country.
“So we changed our focus from reducing the road toll to seeing if we shouldn’t be trying to help prevent suicides…. Most people who take their lives are either emotionally or clinically depressed… and that led me to realise that we needed to set up a body to look at depression on a national rather than a state basis and try to educate people about depressive illnesses and encourage them to seek help early and to remove the stigma associated with the illness.
“My daughter’s one question led to the establishment of beyondblue which now has about 50 full-time employees, is a national body and funded by every government, and receives great support from the community.”
Speaking with Kennett, I start to realise that his famous guardedness when it comes to dealing with the media is somewhat related to politics. When it comes to the mental health issue, however, Kennett is passionate and open. His manner is mostly relaxed, even admitting that although he hopes the Hawthorn Hawks-the AFL football club of which he is president- will win the premiership, you “shouldn’t back your house on it.”
Kennett sees his work with beyondblue as “more important than my political career,” and when asked if he would consider spending his time trying to address the other ills of society such as addictions or abuse, he is resolute.
“When I do anything, I do it to the best of my ability and give a lot of time to it. Yes, there are a lot of other callings in the community, but I have decided that my ongoing public service after parliament will be with beyondblue. Instead of splitting 40 per cent of my time that I give back to the community among five or 10 organisations, I give it all to one, because I’m of the view that if you spread it among many, you won’t achieve very much.
“Beyondblue is recognised; we’ve achieved-and we’re achieving-a great deal. Eighty-six per cent of the public know of beyondblue, the stigma attached to [depression] has been greatly reduced and many people are seeking help that they’ve never done before.”
Beyondblue groups its activities within several priority areas, including:
Community awareness and destigmatisation. To reduce the stigma by increasing awareness of the symptoms, causes and treatments of depression and by promoting the experiences of people whose lives have been affected.
Consumer and carers. To promote a community-wide response to and advocacy for the issues raised by people with depressive illness and their carers.
Prevention and early intervention. To support programs that provide opportunities to prevent depression and/or promote early intervention and to rigorously evaluate the impact of these programs.
Research. To promote depressionrelated research, particularly in relation to service delivery and measurement of program outcomes.
And for Kennett, he is proud of the fact that beyondblue “has opened the community’s eyes to depressive illnesses and to mental illness that didn’t exist before. It has also led to increased funding to the sector generally… so governments now understand the importance of mental health in a way that was not there earlier,” he points out.
The World Health Organisation defines depression as “a common mental disorder that presents with depressed mood, loss of interest or pleasure, feelings of guilt or low self-worth, disturbed sleep or appetite, low energy, and poor concentration.” At its worst, depression can lead to suicide, a tragic fatality associated with the loss of about 850,000 lives every year, according to the organisation.
The first national survey of mental health in New Zealand was conducted in September 2006. It revealed that 47 per cent of New Zealanders will experience a mental illness and/or an addiction at some time in their lives, with one in five people affected within one year.
The situation is similarly grim in Australia. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, one in five Australians aged 16-85 years had a mental disorder in 2007.
As Kennett sees it, beyondblue’s current success does not mean he can rest on his laurels. “You’ll never complete the work. You’ve always got to keep doing more. It’s a work in progress and doesn’t have a natural end to it.”
Kennett’s main aim in his fight against depression is to ensure men are brave enough to admit they’ve got a problem and seek help. “Women deal with relationships and emotional things a lot better than men do,” he says. “Men tend to keep things to themselves and consider it a weakness to admit to a problem. I’m trying to educate them that it’s not a sign of weakness, it’s not something that they should fear. In fact, they have the responsibility whenever they can to actually get themselves into as good a health as possible, as quickly as possible, so that they can start their responsibilities to their family, their businesses [and their communities] as best as possible.”
As beyondblue moves into its eleventh year of operation, Kennett says that anxiety and advocating good health practices to avoid illness are issues that the organisation will focus on. He has promised to continue the education process, admitting, “We’ve only got 21 million people [in Australia] but each one of those people are different. We’ve all got different fears, different anxieties, different insecurities, different objectives. We live in a multicultural, cosmopolitan society, which probably has every facet of human life represented, so you try to adjust your program, taking on board their circumstances.”
ADDITIONAL SOURCE: Enough Rope with Andrew Denton; Wikipedia.