Launch of Australia’s first integrated research initiative into the prevention of anxiety and depression

By Professor Helen Christensen, Director of the Black Dog Institute, and Jaelea Skehan, Director of Everymind.

From their earliest years, young Australians are taught the enduring sun safe message: ‘Slip, Slop, Slap’. Schools enforce a ‘no hat, no play’ policy with an iron fist, and no-one bats an eyelid when sunscreen is offered at sports carnivals.

This reality is the product of decades of intensive clinical research, prolific public education campaigns and targeted interventions for skin cancer prevention. It’s a hugely successful formula that has undoubtedly saved thousands of lives.

There’s no equivalent of this scale yet for preventing the onset of mental illness, but the evidence for the prevention of anxiety and depression is strong.

With the launch today of Prevention Hub – Australia’s first and largest integrated research initiative into the prevention of anxiety and depression – we are one step closer to implementing what works at scale in prevention of mental illness.

Headed by two of Australia’s leading health research institutes, the Black Dog Institute and Everymind, this NSW-based Hub will translate the latest research into real-world solutions that takes the best of what we know works in preventing mental illness and make this available across the lifespan, in the domains where people live, work, study and interact with the health service.

Right now in Australia, it’s estimated that 560,000 young people are at risk of developing depression. If our children or teenagers become unwell during their adolescent years, the most common reasons are for mental illnesses like anxiety or depression. That’s one in six teens who will develop mental illness during adolescence, a critical period for intervening and preventing the onset of poor mental health.

More broadly, we know that anxiety and depression are amongst the most pressing public health issues of our time. One in five Australians has a mental illness – as many as those affected by hayfever. Two million of us experience anxiety each year, with one million more living with depression.

To forgo prevention activities is effectively the same as waiting and watching as these young Australians steadily join their ranks. This is simply unconscionable.

Yet activities for preventing the onset of mental illness are never seen to be urgent.

Our recent review of published studies from around the world shows that around 11 percent of those at risk of developing mental illness could be averted through talking therapies like cognitive behaviour therapy. To apply this to Australia, this would equate to 61,600 young people each year.

Other evidence suggests that preventive strategies could lower the incidence of depression and anxiety in Australia by 20%.
the Prevention Hub, supported by $5million in Federal Government funding, enables us to set some bold targets over the next two years to reach people where they are: in schools, workplaces and healthcare settings.

This work comprises thousands of participants across a number of trials, including scaling up Black Dog Institute’s online ‘virtual clinic’ Smooth Sailing for school students and adapting Everymind’s Partners in Depression program for online delivery to reach more families, including those in rural areas.

The Prevention Hub will be more that a partnership between Black Dog Institute and Everymind, with researchers from the University of Newcastle, University of New South Wales, University of Sydney, the Australian National University, the Centre for Emotional Health at Macquarie University and the Centre for Rural and Remote Mental Health brining their skills and experience to the research program.
Industry partners like Entertainment Assist, the Mentally Healthy Workplace Alliance, a number of Primary Health Networks and others have also connected with the program of work to further refine what we know and develop this into evidence-based solutions that can be readily implemented into people’s daily lives.

The growing burden of mental ill-health cannot reasonably be stemmed by focusing on treatment alone. Prevention approaches have evidence for effectiveness and excellent return on investment, but perhaps the biggest return is in human capital and potential.

The Prevention Hub presents an unprecedented opportunity to bring to life the timeless adage ‘prevention is better than cure’ and work towards a vision where fewer Australians are impacted by depression and anxiety.