Hawthorn president Jeff Kennett after the Hawk’s loss to Collingwood in Friday night’s preliminary final. Photo: Pat Scala
Some mental health advocates are asking if the Kennett brand has become toxic, hurting the very people beyondblue was set up to help.
HE’S the self-appointed depression guru on a mission to move a stigmatised and hidden illness out of the shadows and into the spotlight.
Jeff Kennett’s high public profile has propelled beyondblue into the nation’s consciousness and put depression on the political agenda.Advertisement: Story continues below
But with the charity’s outspoken chairman embroiled in another controversy, some mental health advocates are asking if the Kennett brand has become toxic, hurting the very people beyondblue was set up to help.
Mr Kennett’s recent claims in a newspaper column that children are mentally healthier if raised in happy heterosexual marriages has prompted calls from the gay and lesbian community for him to step down.
Beyondblue staff were also offended, with many complaining to the organisation. Its own ambassador, television presenter Jessica Rowe, has publicly urged Mr Kennett to apologise.
The federal government, which gave beyondblue nearly $18 million last year, distanced itself, with Mental Health Minister Mark Butler stating he does not share Mr Kennett’s views.
And The Sunday Age has learnt that representatives from Movember, which donates more than $10 million a year to beyondblue, last week sought assurances the comments were not sanctioned by management.
The men’s health charity has strong backing from the gay community, and is under pressure from some within that community to abandon its association with the national depression initiative.
SANE Australia executive director Barbara Hocking said Mr Kennett’s comments were ill-considered. ”In the light of his position as chairman they do not always help the issue for which beyondblue’s been established. I don’t know that he gets that. It’s very unfortunate when messages made by private citizens are deemed to be offensive and insensitive to groups who we know are vulnerable to mental illness and suicide.”
It follows criticisms that until recently, beyondblue has neglected the plight of depressed young people struggling with their sexuality, despite suicide rates up to eight times higher than their heterosexual peers.
Fuelling the frustration were reports in 2008 that Mr Kennett allegedly compared the sacking of a bisexual football trainer to having a paedophile working as a masseur with young boys.
The outcry over his most recent comments forced beyondblue chief executive Dawn O’Neil to last week post a statement on its website, distancing the organisation from its chairman’s comments.
Ms O’Neil cited research which showed Mr Kennett’s views on parenting were factually incorrect and reiterated beyondblue’s commitment to equality, flagging an advertising campaign which will help reduce discrimination against the gay community.
While telling The Sunday Age the board ”100 per cent” supported Mr Kennett, she said the recent furore would be raised at its next meeting.
It’s not the first time the former Victorian premier has caused headaches for the organisation he helped launch 11 years ago. In April, he claimed mandatory gambling limits on poker machines could send some AFL clubs to the wall, a view seemingly incongruous with his charity’s own research, showing a clear link between gambling addiction and mental health problems.
Mr Kennett has also defended his directorship of a company that services poker machines.
David Crosbie, former head of the Mental Health Council of Australia, said Mr Kennett’s ”notoriety” had helped give beyondblue a profile that is the envy of the world. ”You’ve got to take the balance of his contribution to beyondblue over 11 years and say he has been a genuine champion for depression and anxiety.”
The Sunday Age spoke to several senior figures in the mental health field who were unwilling to publicly criticise Mr Kennett but confirmed a growing unrest about his approach.
One mental health source said: ”I think the sector’s trying hard to work together, we’ve got a good minister, we’ve got funding, and I think everyone’s just hoping that Jeff will go away.”
At a time when services are struggling to cope with demand, there is also concern that beyondblue has become a ”public relations behemoth” and is swallowing up so much of the mental health dollar it can’t spend it all, returning a $7 million surplus in 2009 and $10 million in 2008.
Isabell Collins from the Victorian Mental Illness Awareness Council said Mr Kennett, who once said former Labor leader Mark Latham showed symptoms of bipolar disorder – a claim he later retracted – should not speak about issues outside his remit. ”The fact that he’s been the chair of beyondblue for so long and remains so ignorant about mental health issues is a real worry. He provided a diagnosis of Mark Latham and when he was challenged he said he spent a lot of time with consumers. That doesn’t give him the skill in diagnosing. When he does things like that he’s adding to the stigma, which adds to the discrimination, which adds to the depression and mental illness and he should stop it.”
Mr Kennett told The Sunday Age he would not apologise for his views on parenting, which he said were not discriminatory and were based on the ”evidence of life” after many years supporting people with mental health problems. He said he was an ”educated layperson” and always referred people to professional help. He denied his views made things difficult for his CEO and said he had no plans to step down. ”When you have a high profile you’re not going to please all of the people all of the time, but it doesn’t mean that I’m going to try and be all things to all people … What do you want? Do you want a person who is just grey, voiceless, doesn’t provide the leadership?”