Tackling mental health ‘head on’

A new approach to solve the big health challenge of mental illness is rolling out under the Breakthrough Mental Health Research Foundation.

Flinders University and the SA Mental Health Commission are the inaugural partners of Breakthrough, a not-for-profit charity established by the Flinders Foundation and Australia’s only dedicated mental health research foundation.

The Adelaide Crows Football Club also will support the new foundation, including a special promotion at its 5 May Adelaide Oval game against Carlton.

Donations are open on the new Breakthrough Mental Health Research Foundation website (breakthroughfoundation.org.au) or SMS ‘Tackle’ to 0437 371 371 to donate.

Rolling out early-intervention programs will help tackle mental health issues before they take hold, says Breakthrough CEO Ms Amanda Shiell.

“We are not winning the battle against mental health and we can’t wait any longer to do something about it. We need to find new ways to take action and prevent people from reaching crisis point in the future,” she says.

One in two Australian adults will experience a mental illness in their lifetime and, right now, one in five Australians has a mental health issue.

“More people between 15 and 44 years are dying from suicide than any other cause and this is not acceptable,” Ms Shiell says.

“No other illness or disease affects the population at such scale. It’s time to understand why or how it happens and we don’t know how to stop it.”

Four Flinders University projects are kicking off the program under the key research themes of Early Intervention, Precision Research, New Technologies and Next Generation Therapies.

Along with the digital health app, they include Flinders Psychology research into progressive eating disorders and wellbeing and resilience programs and Flinders Education research on effective anti-bullying programs.

Developing a mental health research strategy is a unique opportunity to turn the tide, says SA Mental Health Commissioner Chris Burns.

“We need to invest in mental health research to save people from experiencing the devastating effects of mental illness,” Mr Burns says.

SA Mental Health Commissioner Mr Burns is on the not-for-profit foundation’s founding advisory council with leaders such as Professor Ian Hickie – one of Australia’s first National Mental Health Commissioners – SAHMRI Executive Director Professor Steve Wesselingh, Flinders Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Research) Professor Robert Saint and Adelaide Crows representative Nick McArdle.

“Mental health is something that in one way or another affects us all – whether we’re facing a personal challenge or supporting a loved one through theirs,” Professor Saint says.

“That’s why Flinders is seeking to bring a specific research focus to mental health through our plans to establish a dedicated Mental Health Research Institute – an ambition which will be supported by the creation of the Breakthrough Foundation which assists people to directly donate to prevention-centric research into those areas of mental health they want to support,” he says.

Associate Professor Niranjan Bidargaddi, left, Professor Robert Saint, Ms Amanda Shiell and Mr Chris Burn CSC at the charity’s launch.

Flinders Vice-Chancellor Professor Colin Stirling says Breakthrough will support Flinders University to establish a flagship Mental Health Research Institute and be a national leader in this important field.

“From our highly regarded psychology research, through to our cutting-edge digital health initiatives, Flinders is already making a difference to people’s health and wellbeing,” Professor Stirling says.

“TheInstitute will help coordinate our focus on early intervention by identifying and addressing the causes of mental health issues.

“The establishment of Breakthrough provides a clear means for people to directly support the life-changing research that matters to them.”

For example, Flinders Associate Professor of Personal Health Informatics, Niranjan Bidargaddi,  is developing an app to provide clinicians with an insight into people’s state of mind by assessing a range of digital indicators, such as mobile phone calls and GPS monitoring their activity.

“The app works by digital detection of changes in behaviours, such as skipping appointments, different typing patterns, or a change in voice and language presenting early warning signs of potential decline,” says Associate Professor Bidargaddi, from the College of Medicine and Public Health.

“This will be a new and valuable way for early diagnosis and early intervention and will be especially useful on the very challenging early stages of problems when thoughts are still subliminal.

“The app is user controlled and privacy protected to give patients confidence. For clinicians, the app offers the opportunity for supports to be applied before patients become critically unwell – potentially improving health outcomes and realising substantial cost savings,” he says.

Professor Saint says the app exemplifies how Flinders research can make a difference to people’s daily lives.

The app, also being funded by Flinders and Country Health SA, has attracted MRFF funding support via the South Australian Academic and Health Sciences Translation Centre to trial and calibrate the app. A Federal Government MRFF TRIP fellowship, including engagement with Harvard University, will support the translation of this app into clinical practice.

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