Wednesday, 02 April 2014 16:21

Jack Heath, CEO of SANE Australia

Jack-HeathJack Heath, the chief executive of SANE Australia, has been working to build better lives and give voice to the challenges and achievements of Australians affected by mental illness for close to two decades. His personal involvement through a family member set him on a path to improving the lives of people with mental illness and he isn't stopping anytime soon. "There is a lot of work still to do!" he says.

In 1997, following the suicide of his 20-year-old cousin, Jack founded the Inspire Foundation, with the idea of using the internet to prevent youth suicide. The Inspire Foundation, which runs the ReachOut.com youth mental health service, brought to life Jack's vision of using technology to enable young people to stay connected and get the help they need, where and when they need it.

Prior to Inspire, Jack spent 10 years working in government as a diplomat, public servant and senior adviser to Prime Minister Keating. After returning from the United States, where he ran the Inspire USA Foundation in 2010 and 2011, he had a brief stint with Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd until his resignation and then Jack moved back to working in mental health.

Inspired by people with mental illness, and driven by his personal experience and previous work in the youth mental health sector, Jack seized the opportunity to become the CEO of SANE Australia in 2012. 

Jacks says he derives much of his inspiration from people with mental illnesses, such as schizophrenia and bipolar, who are holding down a job.

"Within a few days of starting at SANE, I met people with schizophrenia holding down full-time jobs and part-time jobs. And despite having worked in mental health for 15 years, I found that I actually brought a good deal of ignorance and stigma myself."

"I realised that there was so much more hope around the severe end of the spectrum than I had ever realised before. I have met so many incredible people who are not just getting on and living their lives but who are making a significant contribution in workplaces or have the courage to share their story with others," Jack said.

Although nearly one in two Australians (45 per cent) will experience a mental illness over their lifetime, only a small portion of people feel comfortable to disclose their mental illness in their workplaces. When it comes to creating mentally healthy workplaces, Jack says you have to start at the top.

"What is really important is that we have a culture where leaders of the organisations are giving themselves key performance indicators to create healthy workplaces. There is no point in having a great HR director if that good work is not followed up the line. The role of CEOs is absolutely critical."

Although we have done reasonably well in terms of reducing stigma around depression, Jack cautions that we still have a long way to go and every one of us has a role to play in addressing the stereotypes that are often attached to mental health, especially in the workplace.

Last year SANE Australia did a workplace survey about depression, which found that in Australia, one in four people in the workforce reported that they had experienced depression. The survey also found that Australians are far less likely to admit to our employer that we have depression compared to employees in Europe, even though there is a greater understanding generally about the symptoms and impact of mental illnesses.

In fact, across Europe, 25 per cent of people who had depression said that they wouldn't tell their employer. When it came to Australia, that figure is almost double at 41 per cent.

Jack attributes this marked difference in attitudes partly to a stigma issue but also to the fact that Australia has a team-based culture and we don't want to let down our fellow workers.

"We also found that when people do disclose at work in Australia, their colleagues are much more supportive than they are in Europe, so I think that there is a bit of an issue about thinking we are letting the team down and as a result we don't put our hand up when we might."

"The same survey also looked at attitudes in terms of telling your family and friends about mental illness, for Australia and Europe the numbers were pretty well exactly the same. So it's interesting that when it came to the workplace that there was this marked difference."

Jack cautioned that it is important people understand there a number of important factors to consider before disclosing a mental illness to their employer, such as asking a trusted person review their disclosure plan and provide feedback.

Fundamentally, employers must ensure their workplaces have mental health policies and practices in place, as well as a focus on getting the culture right.

"We need to equip managers with the skills and confidence to be able to have a conversation with someone when they think that things may be getting a little bit difficult."

"The big risk there is that the managers drop back, the person feels unsupported, they either get performance managed out of the organisation or they end up resigning. So it's really important that managers have the skills and confidence to be able to have a conversation with someone and understand what supports they can offer to help their employees," Jack said.

However it is not all doom and gloom and Jack has great cause for optimism with some employers and companies doing particularly well.

"As an employer, if you know that you're providing a job for someone who might be affected by mental illness, it makes a huge difference in those people's lives. By keeping them employed, you're reducing costs across the community, but for that particular person, you're giving them the ability to know that they are living a contributing life. And that has a huge impact because those are the people who are then inspired to go and help other people like them."

If you are considering disclosing a mental illness to your manager, please visit SANE for more information.

This week the Commission released its mental health guideline for employers, Mental illness: complying with the Equal Opportunity Act 2010 in employment.

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