How do we move the needle on mental health outcomes?

by | Mar 5, 2024 | Business, Living, Measuring Wellbeing, Wellbeing, Wellbeing Strategy, Working

My reflections from the Sydney Ideas Forum: Shaping the Mental Health Agenda


Yesterday, I had the privilege of attending the Sydney Ideas forum (University of Sydney) Shaping the Mental Health Agenda event in person. It was an inspiring event.

Tip: Skip the next three paras if you just want to hear my account of the forum but read them if you are interested in the personal context for this blog.

For more than three decades in my professional life, I’ve been on a crusade to help leaders prioritise and navigate the complexities of mental health, wellbeing and high functioning – their own and others. Initially, the objective was simply to show compassion and provide meaningful support to help them with the demands and stressors in their lives, both at work and personally. But by 2015, it had also become clear that focusing on leaders as whole human beings for reasons of humanity and in ways that recognised their own needs, emotions, dysfunctions, hopes, aspirations and constraints isn’t only an act of kindness, but is also a valuable pathway to higher quality leadership. Turns out that superior individual, team and organisational results are delicious economic byproducts from mentally healthy leaders.

Arriving at the Sydney Ideas forum yesterday, I was preoccupied with a familiar trouble – why is society holding on so tightly to misplaced views of its corporate and institutional leaders as seemingly invincible agents who remain unaffected by the relentless pressures of their roles? And that they will pursue and successfully achieve organisational goals with immunity to variations in their own mental health? Deep down I’m heartened to realise I don’t think anyone really believes this is true, and in its place there is a fast growing elephant in today’s psychosocial health and psychological safety rooms. What about leaders? They’re human too!

In my personal life, well – let’s just say I turned up at this forum as someone who is no stranger to what a desperate struggle it can be to access effective and timely support, especially to help prevent vulnerable young adults from a cycle of deteriorating mental health, increased risks, loss of functioning and lower quality of life.

Yesterday’s Sydney Ideas session injected a healthy dose of timely optimism, purpose and inspiration – thank you sincerely to everyone involved.

 @Professor Ian Hickie AO , our chair for the session, set the stage with his trademark commanding expertise, composure and connection with the audience.

 @Alastair Campbell, was powerful in his short keynote of insights into his lived experiences of mental ill health and high-profile leadership. Short but oh, so good.

Together, Ian and Alastair pulled no punches. Here are my Top 5 takeaways:

1. Beyond Awareness and Destigmatization to Solutions

Both Australia and the UK have earned gold medals in raising awareness and destigmatizing mental health issues. Raising awareness is no longer enough. The real challenge lies in transitioning from awareness to effective solutions.

2. Inequality of Access

While demand for mental health services has surged, inequality of access remains a critical issue. We must bridge this gap to ensure equitable support for all.

3. Leadership Insights from Alastair Campbell

Including “to influence and get things done” we need three essential elements:

Objective (define the priority to be achieved) + Strategy (develop a plan to achieve our objective) + Tactics (identify how you will execute the plan).

Applied to the mental health agenda, this looks like:

  • Objective: Progressing our mental health agenda to achieve genuine parity between physical and mental health. It’s time to shift the conversation from stigma to solutions.
  • Strategy: Stopping people from becoming mentally unwell and improving access to services.
  • Tactics: Persuasion. Although Alastair has coined and prefers the term persivilience* (perseverance + resilience).

*emphasizes learning from failures and continually adapting approaches.

Alastair implored us all to be “sharing and shouting louder”, “but in civilised ways… to disagree agreeably” and implied we must keep doing this for as long as it takes, pushing back with more compelling arguments in support of mental health as the priority over competing arguments for the same resources!

4. Our Collective Responsibility

For mental health to become a true priority, it must surpass other goals. The job of elevating mental health within a competitive agenda is a collective role. To push forward, the job for all of us is to get people in leadership positions to decide to treat mental health as a true priority; it’s our jobs to push them. Without better community support and demand for action it’s unlikely there will be any action. While now is not the time to be meek in asking for what is needed, we do have to be sympathetic to the plight of decision maker’s scarcity of resources. So we must be utterly persuasive.

5. Jumping Together

It’s hard for one leader to change a workplace, but if lots of leaders were to understand their own and others mental health and wellbeing needs in real and practical ways … well, imagine a synchronized leap — individuals, families, communities, and employers choosing to jump towards progress together. This collective effort defines progress. It’s about bridging gaps, sharing resources, and creating a safety net for all.

After Alastair’s keynote, the rest of the session was given over to a lively panel discussion with Zsofi de Haan, psychologist and researcher from Sydney University’s Brain and Mind Centre; Tanya Dearle, Advisory Board member at The Matilda Centre for Research in Mental Health and Substance Use; and Sam Mostyn, Chair of Beyond Blue, all of whom augmented Ian and Alistair’s ideas, while The Hon Rose Jackson MP, NSW Minister for Mental Health …and Youth and Housing and Homelessness and Water and North Coast (prioritising opportunity here?)… did a marvellous job of listening, reading the room and bravely conceding ‘yes’ Governments must do better but so must the whole community – individuals, families, employers, schools, communities, policing etc.

Reflecting on the arguments discussed, what struck me most and has stayed with me is:

The Compelling Case for Mental Health Prioritization:

  1. Reposition to Universal Human Need: Mental health is a 1 in 1 issue. Every one of us has mental health needs. It transcends demographics, professions and backgrounds. Stop talking about mental ill-health as a 1 in 4.
  2. Consider Personal Impact: Consider this: each of us in Australia is only one person away from knowing someone who has attempted suicide. Despite $12bn annual government funding, we still face this stark reality.
  3. Focus on Preventing Little Problems from Becoming Big Ones: Providing access to personalized early support before “little problems become big ones” prevents 7 out of 10 people from requiring more complex services later.
  4. The trend of declining mental health predates Covid and social media usage by at least a decade; they alone cannot be blamed.

As the Forum is about Ideas for ACTION, the panel and audience also discussed what would constitute effective solutions:

What does success look like? ➡️➡️➡️

Close the gap between the stated vs actual mental health position in the hierarchy of priorities. It’s a question that demands introspection at every level—individual, family, community, and employer. Advocate harder and better for the resources and commitment to achieve more meaningful change and worthwhile support.

Local Solutions and Human-Centric Approaches. Avoid overcomplicating grandiose solutions at the systems level. Avoid getting bogged down in tick a box compliance and bureaucratic processes that are not making a difference. Instead, focus on localized, “community”-based approaches. Whether in health or employment contexts, break free from rigid structures and prioritize practical, meaningful support over checkboxes.

The Future of Mental Health Solutions. Thrilled to hear Sam Mostyn and Zsofi de Haan emphasize the importance of accessible, timely, and tailored solutions. They envision a psychology profession that is equipped and promoting reliable techniques for early identification, individualised assessment and personalized care as the basis of humane and efficient mental health solutions. (Good to know, ‘cos that sounds awfully like the Global Leadership Wellbeing Solutions (GLWS) !)

Collaboration and Collective Action. Leading the mental health agenda isn’t a solo endeavour; it’s leadership and community voices working together. Here’s how we can encourage collaboration:

  1. Shared Vision: Leaders must collectively decide to treat mental health as a true priority. It’s not just about ticking boxes; it’s about meaningful impact.
  2. Persuasion: We need to persuade leaders at all levels. Stopping people from becoming unwell and providing early access should be a shared goal.
  3. Place-Based Solutions: Let’s break free from overly complex systems. Localized, community-based approaches can yield powerful results. What works in one context may not work everywhere, and that’s okay.

Earlier, Easier, and Together: Employers investing in preventative mental health and wellbeing solutions that are accessible, timely, and tailored will make the biggest difference to most people and the economy. It’s time to prioritize earlier, make it easier to access, and do it together.

#Earlier, easier, and together. 

Finally, in the spirit of Alastair’s encouragement of our collective responsibility to push hard get people in leadership positions to decide to treat mental health as a true priority i’m proud to add GLWS (Global Leadership Wellbeing Survey) to this list. As a long-time advocate for improving mental health through employer-funded action, I invite you to learn more about GLWS—it’s a powerful tool that works to support leaders’ health, wellbeing and high functioning at work and at home.

If you’re inspired to take action please do get in touch with me or my team.


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