Adding up the value of a long career in mental health

24 November 2022

As a young doctor in the late 70s, Professor Harvey Whiteford left paediatrics for a rotation in psychiatry. At the time, a head nurse commented that his move was a waste of talent. He remembers her words hit hard.

“Working in psychiatry was a shock,” Professor Whiteford said. “The stigma around patients seemed to move onto the staff. The suffering was no less than I’d seen in other patients. No one sent flowers to patients in the mental health ward. They didn’t get many visitors. We had a long way to go before mental health became part of health.”

Fortunately, Professor Whiteford found his niche and has remained in mental health ever since. In doing so, he has helped more people indirectly than he could ever have hoped to as a clinician. His career expanded into research, administration and public health, where he has influenced how mental health systems are run and resourced here and around the world.

Professor Whiteford took a Research Fellow at Stanford University on a Queensland Government scholarship. When he returned to Queensland, he set up what is now the Queensland Centre for Mental Health Research (QCMHR), Queensland’s premier mental health research organisation.

Between setting up QCMHR and now as its Director, Professor Whiteford worked in senior government roles, as the Director of Mental Health for Queensland and then for the Federal Government in Canberra. He was instrumental in establishing Australia’s National Mental Health Strategy, and chairing the Working Group that oversaw this initiative.

“The World Bank, for the 1993 World Development Report, commissioned work that led to the Global Burden of Disease Study in 1996. This showed that mental and substance use disorders were the leading cause of disability, revolutionising how we thought about mental health,” Professor Whiteford said.

Professor Whiteford was appointed to the World Bank’s first mental health position. The Bank’s lending was to low-and middle-income countries, and he did not expect his experience in Australia to qualify him for the job. Nevertheless, he was successful, and the role was enormous – developing the Bank’s capacity to respond to the rising global burden of mental and neurological disorders.

“We helped many low-income and middle-income countries, including those rebuilding after years of war, not only with physical infrastructure but with programs for what were more invisible things like psychological trauma,” Professor Whiteford said.

His positions in government and at the World Bank cemented his move into population health and health policy and planning, and Professor Whiteford continues to drive the reform of mental health services in Australia and overseas. As the Professor of Population Mental Health at The University of Queensland, he is responsible for the teams estimating the global epidemiology and burden of mental disorders and designing and planning health services.

“Although I still see patients one day a week, the focus of my work is really on populations and evidence-based healthcare planning and policy.”

When Dr Kerrie Freeman moved to South Australia, Professor Whiteford accepted the invitation to replace her as the West Moreton Health representative on the Health Translation Queensland (HTQ) board.

“Collaborative networks like HTQ are important because they help build and strengthen the connections between different parts of our health system and the worlds of research and clinical care. The translation of research into policy and practice ultimately makes for better health outcomes for our population,” Professor Whiteford said.

“Hospitals and health services too often work in silos, as can universities and research institutes, and the connections between them are often fragile and inconsistent. The challenge for HTQ is how to forge partnerships that outlive what are often personal connections between individuals.

“My experience is that it takes more than the sign-off from the senior executive of a health service for a research culture to embed and grow. It requires system change at multiple levels, in workforce planning and recruitment, finance, IT and HR systems.

“A challenge for HTQ is to demonstrate the value of collaborative networks to its partners and funding bodies like the NHMRC; to show what has happened because HTQ exists,” Professor Whiteford said. “It can be difficult to quantify, but I’ve seen it in mental health, and we’re certainly going to have to show this at West Moreton.”

After a long career, he reflects on one of his greatest personal rewards – to see PhD students and early career researchers make discoveries and become successful. “That is a buzz money cannot buy. Seeing their passion and knowing that you have contributed in some way to who they’ve become. It’s like as a clinician when a patient recovers, and you were part of that.

“Many researchers don’t get the opportunity to connect with the people whose lives their work has changed, but that is what it is all about, and these people are a reminder of why we do what we do.”

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