Battle for minds and hearts: politicians and media fight the blues

Great things can happen when traditional differences are put aside.

Great things can happen when traditional differences are put aside. Like when Jeff Kennett came to visit me more than a decade ago in my office at our media buying company in Melbourne.

Jeff had recently been the enormously successful premier of Victoria for seven years. His government had rebuilt the fortunes of the state and the spirit of the people.

During Jeff's years in office, Victoria became so attractive that people started pouring back into it again, after years of losses in the early and mid-1990s.

Jeff was in my office because he was on another great mission. He told me his young daughter had taken him aside and said, "Dad, you have done all that big political stuff, but something needs to be done about all my mates who are committing suicide."

This powerful and simple plea to a father had its effect and a team of 10 was assembled in 2000 with Jeff as the chairman, to form beyondblue, a non-profit organisation with the mission to change public perceptions about depression. Saving the state's finances was one thing, but saving the lives of our young people was a different order of things altogether.

"Mr Mitchell," he said, as he always addressed me formally, "we've done many good things together. I need to spend $2 million on TV advertising to build beyondblue."

"Mr Premier," I said (I always address people formally too), "you can't afford it! You pour your energies into the programs and activities of beyondblue and I'll get $2 million of advertising for you. Not for one year, because this seems to be a problem forever. We've got to try do it for three years at least."

I called the chief executives of all the TV networks to my office and asked Jeff to address them. He talked about the issue of mental health and they responded accordingly. As a result, by 2009, 89 per cent of Australians were aware of beyondblue, independent research showed.

Not bad, but clearly not enough.

Early this week, Ken Lay, the refreshingly down-to-earth Chief Commissioner of Victoria Police, told me nearly 50 per cent of all critical police call-outs involved a mentally ill person and most Victorian police dealt with a mentally ill person once or twice a week.

The raw statistics are staggering and appalling for a country that, by many measures, is the wealthiest and most fortunate on earth.

■One in five Australians aged 16-85 experiences a mental illness in any year, and half of us will have a mental illness in our lifetime.

■In the fours years to 2007-08, state and territory governments spent $3 billion on mental health.

■Depression is the No. 1 cause of non-fatal disability in Australia.

Many people are doing what they can. Former Australian of the Year Pat McGorry is a tireless champion for the cause and also runs the highly successful Orygen program for young people. Headspace, the federal government's initiative, is a national program with 55 centres across the country that has helped more than 100,000 young people.

Jeff did many things, but perhaps his greatest work was to bring mental illness into the open. Thanks to the media bosses as well. Politicians and media bosses are often thought to be natural enemies, even predators, though it's often not easy to work out who is the hunted and the hunter. But there are times, and there should be more of them, when traditional positions of combat can be put aside to make society more civil and humane.

Everyone reading this column will know someone who is affected by mental illness and there are things that we all can do. But the first thing is to put aside entrenched views and positions, just as the former premier and the media bosses did. No one could be more combative with the media than Jeff, and very few politicians have been more criticised.

But together, they are a marvellous example of how to pull together and get things done. We haven't done enough and the message to our politicians is: just get on with it.

Related Articles