With Helen Herrman

September 11 / 69

Professor Helen Herrman is Professor of Psychiatry at the Centre for Youth Mental Health, the University of Melbourne, and Director of the World Health Organisation (WHO) Collaborating Centre for Mental Health in Melbourne. She is ending a six-year term as a member of the Executive Committee of the World Psychiatric Association (WPA). She was elected in 2005 as the Secretary for Publications, and is now a candidate for the position of WPA President-Elect.


Beginning my career as a public health physician has influenced my work ever since. I take to heart the ideas promoted by the World Health Organisation (WHO) that mental health is inseparable from health, and psychiatry is integral to public health.  As a young immigrant doctor working in public health in Oxford, UK, I encountered the discipline of social medicine.  John Ryle recognised in the 1930s the inequalities in health caused largely by poverty.  He and other doctors began to ask questions such as “why did this particular patient become ill at this time and in this place?”  This thinking profoundly affected clinical medicine and public health in the UK and in Australia and was supported by the progress of epidemiological research on the causes of non-communicable disease, especially cancer and heart disease.  Most recently it is reflected and developed in the WHO’s work on the social determinants of health.

 My connection with these ideas began with studies in Oxford that highlighted the social influences on the premature death of people living with mental illnesses. This brought me into the field of psychiatry. I have now worked for 25 years as a clinical and academic psychiatrist in my home city of Melbourne, including 12 years as Professor and Director of Psychiatry at St Vincent’s Health and the University of Melbourne with responsibilities for the development of community-based services.  In the last few years I have had the opportunity to work with this university and international organisations to focus more and more on the link between mental health and development.

 Now is a good time to work in this field.  A public health view of mental health is gaining influence in global thinking about health and development.  An article in the 7 July 2011 issue of journal Nature, calls for urgent action and long-term investment to tackle the grand challenges in global mental health. Effective treatments exist for many people with mental, neurological and substance-use (MNS) disorders such as depression, schizophrenia, epilepsy, dementia and alcohol dependence. But treatment and care are often inaccessible or unavailable, especially for those people; young and older, with greatest needs. Research into health system changes is vital, together with investigation of the social exclusion that accompanies MNS disorders in all societies.

 The next steps require a united voice. Psychiatrists are taking an active role and working in partnership with service users, families, health professionals and governments. The WPA is an association of national psychiatric societies committed to increasing the knowledge and skills necessary for work in the field of mental health and care for people with mental illnesses.  It represents 200,000 psychiatrists in 117 countries and is in official relations with the WHO.  If elected on 21 September (during the World Congress of Psychiatry in Buenos Aires) to a further leadership role in WPA as President-Elect, I will continue working with WPA to support and engage psychiatry and improve mental health globally.  I will also continue to play a role in demonstrating Australian achievement and leadership in mental health and the keen interest in Australia in building successful partnerships to promote mental health.


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