The Mental Health of Our Nation

If Australia were an individual, how would you describe its psyche? What would you say about its mental health? With the diversity that our nation represents its almost impossible to answer those questions, however there are still some cultural myths that bind us together in a national identity. There may even be some common aspirations that can be unearthed.

Our responses to events give some clues to our psyche and even to the state of our mental health. And so we have a diverse response to the execution of Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran. There are countless outpourings of love and support on Facebook social and mainstream media as people try to reconcile the terrible thing that has happened to two of our own. There is even anger and the desire for revenge. Then the opposite is also present with people saying they deserve what they get. Still others point to the understandable, but not justifiable inconsistencies as we pour ourselves out for these two reformed criminals, yet thousands are killed unjustly everyday without barely a whimper from our country.

Then the events on the weekend where close on 400,000 Australians braved capital city cold, chill and in some places rain to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the ANZAC’s landing at Gallipoli. They came to honour not only that ill-fated landing but wherever Australian and New Zealand troops have served together.

Attendance at Dawn Services*

  • Perth – Around 70,000
  • Adelaide – 20,000 at the service
  • Canberra – 128,000
  • Melbourne – 85,000
  • Darwin – 10,000
  • Brisbane – tens of thousands
  • Hobart and Launceston – tens of thousands
  • ANZAC Cove – 10,000
  • If we could add up all the commemorations in country towns around the nation the number would be much higher

ABC News Website –

* Some of these figures may include attendance at marches after the dawn services

Whether you believe war is justifiable or like Philip Berrigan (American peace and social justice activist and former Catholic priest who used civil disobedience as a method of protest ) you are prepared to go to gaol for your stance against war, the sacrifice of those willing to lay down their lives for the ideal they held is worthy of honour.

I have always found it hard to connect with ANZAC Day and Remembrance Day, I believe my Pop was involved with the airforce, but only on our shores and we never spoke about it. Others of course wear their relatives’ medals with pride and as they have gotten older and died, replaced them in the marches.

Triple J’s Hack Program used the lead up to the ANZAC Day commemorations as an opportunity to ask the question, ‘Who are we?’ It’s essentially a question of culture, national identity and what is important to us as a nation. Is what we believe to be true about ourselves, in fact true? I guess the question was spurred on by the fact that so many Australians would go out to dawn services and spend time honouring and remembering. It was even a topic of conversation down my very hipster street the night before the services.

Many would see that our involvement, particularly in World War 1 was when we began to form our national psyche or identity. Wartime became the source of so many stories and depictions of our mythic (cultural belief) character traits; our stickability, we would dig in and be there till the bitter end; ingenuity, making it work with whatever was at hand; camaraderie, that we would do anything for a mate particularly if he was in trouble; the larrikin, being in good humour almost despite the circumstances and our innate ability to party wherever we are; defying of authority, not liking rules for rules sake and believing we know better.

One of the most heroic pictures coming out of Gallipoli is the myth of self- sacrifice around Simpson and his donkey. Private John Simpson Kirkpatrick served in the 3rd Field Ambulance of the Australian Army Medical Corps. He served from the time of the landing April 25 – May 19. He worked as a stretcher- bearer, using one of the donkeys brought for transporting water, he took wounded men day and night from the fighting to the beach. He did this through deadly sniper and the most furious shrapnel fire. He was killed by machine gun whilst carrying two wounded men and was buried on the beach at Hell Spit.

So what of these things are true for today’s Australia? What of these characteristics and others are enduring? What of these things might be part of our self-perception, but not seen by other nations? When we look in the cultural mirror what do we see? And of what we see, is important to us?

With the average attender at ANZAC Cove in Turkey being a female backpacker in her 20’s, it would appear that the meaning of ANZAC day is not lost, but according to a Hack report which included an interview with young people on the streets of Brisbane there are some very mixed responses. There is a sense of we should commemorate, some even say celebrate. Others seem to value the day off more than any recognition.

However in the midst of this there is a call to identify the values that hold true rather than wearing ANZAC day as a cultural flag. How can we translate what we saw in the diggers into values that can be embraced by all Aussies? I found it interesting, hearing the responses of the culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD) communities to ANZAC Day. Many are afraid to get involved because of fear that they will be targeted in racist responses. And so the call for a more inclusive story that represents who we are needs to be heard.

One of the guests on Hack (Mon 20/4) saw the possibility of ANZAC Day becoming the world’s largest peace rally where we stop and consider the cost of war, and where we make sure we don’t go to war again. Pausing for a national day of reflection and confirming of our values sounds good to me!

So what are some things that we can take with us as in various forms we continue the conversation of our national identity, our psyche, our mental health?

Felicity Ward an Australian comedian living in London on return to Australia confirms we are so friendly, so warm, so laid back. We support the underdog and perhaps see ourselves as an underdog.

Peter Garret – former front man for Midnight Oil and former Labor politician sees that we have incredible potential to be a really good place to live. He believes that we are not as egalitarian as we were and that we need to keep an eye on that. He sees we need to embrace tolerance, respect particularly for our indigenous culture and for the planet.

Dick Smith – entrepreneur and philanthropist sees us as a fortunate, wealthy country, helpfully isolated, and with wonderful freedoms. He sees our country towns as unique to anywhere in the world.

I wonder what you would say if you had to describe our psyche or reflect on our mental health. We’ve really only just scratched the surface and already we have uncovered values such as, self sacrifice, fair go, tolerance, egalitarian, comradeship, self sacrifice, anti authority, stickability, ingenuity, laid back, larrikinism.

However, how do we go at telling these values to ourselves, what stories apart from the ANZAC story builds our myth and invites everyone to participate, including recognising the significant history of our indigenous peoples before white settlement? Are there events that lead to stories that we can experience today so that we renew our values? And if we think about how we are perceived on a world stage, as we consider the human rights atrocities we are complicit in, and our black-flip on issues relating to climate, there still seems like a lot of work to do.

But in all this please don’t despair, please don’t think the only answer is a padded cell in some asylum, when it comes to our nation’s mental health. That creating a positive national psyche or identity is impossible, because if we throw our hands up in the air, we’re just adding to the problem.

Evil prospers when good men (and women) do nothing

John Philpot Curran

A Nation of Captives

I hate feeling any kind of restriction. From being told I can’t do something that I want to, to physically being trapped. When I was seven I spent two hours in a lift with a whole bunch of other people as we waited to be rescued. It has only been in recent years that I can travel in a lift without my heart rate increasing. Good thing that, seeing as we live on the 7th floor of an apartment building. I even hate it when my head or arm gets caught in the awkward act of getting dressed, particularly when multiple layers are involved.

Extrapolate that feeling of restriction to someone who has been cuffed with their hands firmly behind their back. Been put in the rear of what is essentially a panel van with barely any light and held on remand until a significant portion of their life is sentenced away. Suddenly their ability to walk down the street to buy milk has been taken away from them, they are unable to call a mate for a chat, connect with a caring support worker or hug their loved ones. Suddenly their time is not their own, and over so many layers freedom has been removed.

The experience of incarceration is becoming all too common in our country. Nationwide we have close to 35,000 (186 / 100,000 of the population) men and women in our prisons, which represents a 400% increase in the last three decades. We spend on average $80,000 per prisoner per year. I’ll leave you to do the math, but relatively speaking we are rushing headlong down the path of our US counterparts where the community is haemorrhaging under an annual prison bill of $60 Billion.

So why have we got such high numbers in our prisons? Mirko Bagaric writing in The Conversation says, in many cases, imprisonment is just the wanton infliction of gratuitous punishment by an unthinking legislature and a reflexive judiciary. In his book Seeking Peace, Johann Christoph Arnold believes that much of the politics of law and order has more to do with violence and fear than with peace. It’s true isn’t we all want a peaceful society where we can get on with living life the way we want to. There seems to be a growing perception that one way to achieve this nirvana is to lock up people who commit crimes, no matter what that crime was. We also ignore significant research that says incarceration, whilst removing someone from society for a time is more likely to cause recidivism than a suspended sentence or a more innovative approach to rehabilitation. Being in prison enmeshes someone in a criminal learning environment it also labels and stigmatises. To the extent that when people come out of prison quite often they are unable to find suitable housing, enter into education or find an employer willing to give an ex-con a go.

In turn there is a wider impact on the prisoners family and broader society. The family, already likely to be suffering disadvantage, tends to enter further into the poverty cycle, which lasts for generations and is incredibly hard to break. These factors tend to set the ex-con and potentially others in the family on a path toward violent crime. I was also staggered to read in a Smart Justice fact sheet that 42% of men and 33% of women in prison have an acquired brain injury with a possible intellectual disability and that 42% of the prison population are under a psychiatric risk warning. 87% of women prisoners have experienced abuse. 45.3% of women were unemployed and 63.7% of men at the time of incarceration, with only 14.1% of females and 5.6% of male prisoners finishing secondary school, having a trade or finishing tertiary education. And before I bore you with too many statistics 58% of inmates in Australian prisons have been there before.

A quote from the Victorian Institute of Forensic Mental Health in 2005 sums it up well at least for a significant percentage of the prison population.

Ignored, mismanaged, released unprepared, rapidly reoffending and returning to prison. This is all too often the story of the mentally ill offender, repeated and repeated.

So what is going to make a difference? What is going to move us towards the peaceful society we all long for? The Smart Justice organisation believes that as a society we need to;

  • Tackle the underlying factors such as poverty, poor levels of education, the effects of disadvantage, including income inequality. They see we need to invest in child protection, family support, housing, employment, education, mental health and drug and alcohol problems.
  • Expand court programs that address the causes for example Collingwood’s Neighbourhood Justice Centre which brings court proceedings and supporting agencies closer together.
  • Provide intensive support to prisoners pre and post release, particularly around housing, education and employment
  • Promote appropriate alternatives to prison such as community based orders and suspended sentences.

Whilst all of these are good systemic responses, I can’t help feeling its not enough. Our attitudes also need reforming. I live in inner city Melbourne and at times it can be interesting to say the least as a desperate scream rises from the street or a distressed child cries for love. Whilst, as much as I would like to rescue everyone, I can’t! In the words of Bart Campolo, ‘some people’s ticket has already been punched’ meaning their way of life is so ingrained or their capacity is such that they can’t make significant changes.

I guess at that point we can go one of two paths, the first path is the one ruled by fear and the desire to remove the one/s that make us uncomfortable including the one who commits crime. And I resonate with that, unstable people, people who are abusing alcohol and drugs, ones likely to commit crimes for whatever reason, scare me.

The second path is hard, terribly hard. A radical example of this path is the communities started by Jackie Puillinger now in many of the world’s drug hot spots. Her philosophy is that someone involved in drugs etc missed a stage in their childhood where they should have been the centre of attention. So when someone comes into the community they are not expected to take part in community life and as they detox they have someone by their side 24hr a day, to get them food, clean them, play games, walk with them, pray for them, whatever is needed. Jackie believes this is the beginning of healing.

Most of us will not be able to embrace the prisoner or drug addict to this extent however when I had the privilege to visit a Pullinger community for a morning I saw some principles that perhaps we can employ as we think about prisons and the society we all want to be a part of. Principles such as seeing through the eyes of love or working to build relationship, being prepared to invite the stranger into our circles. Creating opportunities for connection and for meaningful work and in the midst of this listening to their aspirations and hope for the future. Helping them to see that they have gifts, skills, abilities and perspectives that are valuable. This may not shave off all the rough edges and thankfully it wont recreate them in our image, but it just might see a reduction in prison numbers and more open and accepting climate created within our communities and beyond. Perhaps government resources could be put into creating this type of community rather than preparing for more prison communities.

Tell Future Generations: “It was good for the economy”

Tell Future Generations: “It was good for the economy”

 I’ve lifted the title for this blog from a placard featuring the same words. The placard is being held by a teenage girl who is part of the Australian Youth Climate Coalition (AYCC). The photo features in an article written for The Conversation by Philippa Collin. ( Collin is concerned about the lack of engagement of young people with policy making. Many might lament about the apathy of this generation, but Collin argues this isn’t the case. Stating in fact young people are very active politically however the mechanisms that allowed them a voice in policy making have been drastically reduced, mainly due to government discontinuing or defunding programs.

I was going to write this week’s blog about the alarming rate of incarceration in Australia and particularly in Victoria as we run headlong down the path America has blazed for us. And I will pick up on this in the near future. However reading the article this morning, it being youth week, me being a past youth worker and the father of an almost sixteen year old, I thought the opportunity too good to let go past without comment.

It was my forty-first birthday on Sunday. I don’t tell you that to get more happy birthdays or some kind of warped sympathy, but to say this period of my life has been one of reflection. Am I the person I dreamed I would be when I was young? Living the life I thought I would? Have I made the impact I wanted to make as I was inspired towards a picture of what the world could be in my twenties? Did I have goals as I went through school? Have I achieved those? What has been the result of achieving or not achieving those goals? As a collective what did my generation hope for the world? As we come into leadership positions how have we gone at implementing those hopes and dreams or have we simply succumbed to the status quo?

Some of those questions are hard to answer. I didn’t become a doctor, although I’m hoping to start work on a PhD in the near future? I’m not sure I had burning ambitions for the world at school, although I did in my twenties and thirties. I’ve never really had any financial goals, but life has been full of various communities, connections, long and short-term friends. When I caught up with a school friend a couple of years ago, she informed me that I was doing exactly what I said I would in school, helping people. Well that was nice of her to say, and I certainly hope I have. And maybe the world is a little different because of it. Now, apart from casual connections with neighbours my helping people is more about training, teaching, writing, consulting. It’s different but its good. And there still is a desire to change the world, although it doesn’t get airplay as often as it used to.

However, what of the aspirations of my son’s generation? When I was at school I remember talk of youth parliament and various other connections to policy bodies, but I was not aware enough to know if they were taken seriously and what the outcome of such conversations between young people and policy makers was. In her article, Collin quotes Stephen Coleman a communications scholar who says that young people are often treated like apprentice citizens, with a managed citizenship approach. Essentially initiatives are designed for them which tell them how they are to engage with government and on what issues.

Typically this sort of approach does not engender genuine engagement, where young people are encouraged to think through an issue close to them and work towards a genuinely held policy position. Last year my son got the opportunity to go away for a whole term to a leadership school. Part of the school was linked back to the various local communities of the young people. In teams they had to design and implement a project that was meaningful to them and addressed a need in their community. Whilst this activity may not have been linked with policy makers it was an opportunity for them to think through an issue and come up with some kind of intervention.

Likewise a couple of years ago the organization I was then heading up partnered with some other not-for-profits to run a series of conversations on youth suicide and the social environment for young people. The biggest conversation was a world café event that brought together sixty people including school teachers, youth workers, local councilors, social service workers, police, chaplains and young people. The playing field was leveled and the young people were the stars of the day as they kept the rest of us honest about what the issues really were and what would make a difference. Again the upper levels of government may not have been present but young people contributed and there was the opportunity for the thinking of many workers to be challenged and shifted.

Collin points out in her article that Australian young people have lots to say, with two of Australia’s largest membership based organisations (AYCC and Oaktree Foundation) being youth led. Other youth organisations such as, Young and Well Co-operative Research Centre and Foundation for Young Australians work with young people in a whole range of capacities from innovative policy solutions to social enterprises in areas such as mental health, education and sustainable futures.

As well as these informal approaches and countless other connections on social media, Collin suggests a broader based approach is needed. She points to the British Youth Council as a co-funded model that brings young people and policy makers together. I can see many benefits of this through intergenerational connections and the sense for young people that they can make a difference.

All of this requires an investment in young people on a number of levels. In training I do with local councils and service providers I point out that it is no surprise that young people are disenfranchised with the community and associated political process. They are bombarded almost everyday with messages that they are no good, they cause trouble, that they are lazy and so on. A number of years ago when I was working in Pakenham a group of us sort to bring a different message and engaged a small number of young people in some arts projects in the community. The local paper reported on this and the community began to see a different side to the young people so many regarded with disdain.

Asset Based Community development says that everyone in the community has something to offer, a perspective to bring, a skill to use or teach, something of value. This is akin to the ancient Hebrew concept of Shalom part of which encourages the valuing of young and old and the contribution each can make to the whole.

So as we come to Youth Week 2015 and as I think about my son’s aspirations for himself and the world around him, the challenge for me is will I take this opportunity to deeply listen, not only to him, but to his friends and other young people I come in contact with. To let them know that I value them, I love their dreams for a better world and that I will do all I can to empower them to see those dreams become a reality.



It will probably come as no surprise that this week’s blog has an Easter theme. For many years I was part of a movement known as Reclaim Easter or the Awakening Movement. We also organized marches but unlike the 16 that took place around the country on Saturday, organized by Reclaim Australia, the marches we organized were not motivated by fear of a lifestyle that some see is in danger of disappearing.

Our marches called Christians and indeed the country to a new vision, new possibilities hallmarked by peace, colour, joy connectedness, by everyone finding their place to contribute. All made possible because of the resurrection of Jesus, and the beginning of the creation made new that this event heralded.

Whilst they were hard work at the time, and I remember the cold Easter mornings blowing up balloons, setting out the march route, setting up for the festival afterwards, they were great reminders of a possible world, a glimpse of a redeemed society. Not a society redeemed for a religious dogma, but a society become alive to its possibilities, its potential.

Some will recall that my blog included reference to a march last week, I promise this won’t become a habit, however it seems many people are willing to take to the streets to make their views known. Since the start of the Abbott government there have been many such protests, again predominantly from a negative standpoint. That is in opposition to something, not a positive statement about a potential future.

Motivators such as fear can never produce a hoped or longed for future. Its like when someone goes to a politician to complain that something is wrong in their community. I always wonder what they expect the politician to do about it. Sure I agree our elected representatives are there to listen and help where they can. In fact political leaders in ancient Israel were exhorted to be at the city gates and be prepared to listen to the needs of the people, entering into dialogue with them. However I think today that when many approach out leaders its with a ‘you need to fix this mentality.’ It’s like they have divested themselves of any responsibility and expect the politician to come up with a solution.

So back to the marches on the weekend, there seemed to be a sentiment of hate coming through, despite the organisers and speakers saying it wasn’t that they hated Muslims but that they didn’t want to live under Sharia law and opposed the teachings of Islam. For many who took part in the marches I can’t help thinking that their involvement was motivated by fear. And fear is generally based on ignorance. Pastor Brad Chilcott of Welcome to Australia called for those who marched and those who were part of counter marches to put the banners down and come to the table to get to know each other and for dialogue.

Like the unhappy constituent meeting with the politician, a better way to approach a political leader is to have in mind a preferred future and present the issue and a potential way forward. At this point the politician can also begin to think creatively and together a workable solution may just be happened upon.

Unfortunately I can imagine that for many who marched with Reclaim Australia coming to the table would be the last thing they would want to do. Their solution to the issue seems to be at least in simplicity that the people they think want to promote sharia law should go home. It’s like they have divested themselves of the responsibility of finding a workable solution for our country. A solution that would ultimately see Australia becoming a place that we can all call home.

Easter is a time of hope and new possibilities, as referred to in an Easter message at Collins St Baptist, where Carolyn Francis juxtaposed the light and dark that is evidenced in our world. And I’m sure we can all think of examples where darkness coexists next to light, in our families where one moment there is harmony, the next arguments. In our communities where there is beauty like the birth of babies and the darkness of crime and isolation. In our cities where there are amazing opportunities and hope and the darkness of unmediated commercial greed.

But in all of this Easter reminds us that the door to possibility, hope and a new beginning has been opened. Ross Gittens, economic writer for the Sydney Morning Herald, quoting Tomas Sedlacek a Czech economist reminds us that Easter is primarily about forgiveness both for us as individuals and the possibility of redemption for us as a society. We don’t have to put our hands in the air and say its all too hard. We don’t have to resign to fear of a future not of our own design. Easter is a sign of hope an ultimate eternal hope, but also a present one. I guess the challenge is will we hear the call to hope, to possibility, to new life and if we do hear the call will we respond and enter into the journey with others towards creating a new world full of possibility and potential for all.