It was at the University of Tasmania that Professor Terry Dwyer built his research team. He and his wife moved from Sydney to Hobart after early research had made him aware that the incidence of SIDS was twice as common in Tasmania as the other Australian states, but for reasons that were not understood. Terry and his team undertook ground breaking research.
10,000 babies were recruited to the Rotary-funded study. Professor Dwyer said, ‘Sleeping position was not our principal hypothesis. We were looking at heart rate, temperature variation … but you couldn’t ignore the position in which babies died.’ When they compared everything about the circumstances of those who died with those who did not, sleeping position rang out loud and clear.
Terry Dwyer’s research brought outstanding results, so much so that very quickly the number of infant deaths fell by 80% worldwide. His cot death research remains one of the most successful research outcomes in the world. ARH’s first funding exercise, made possible by Rotary Club support throughout Australia, led to the saving of millions of lives. Today, Terry Dwyer is Professor of Epidemiology at Oxford University.
A lot is owed to the Rotarians who established and drove the Research Fund in its formative years. Royce Abbey, soon to become RI President, was in the Chair for the first six years. The Board had six members, including Past RI President Clem Renouf, but this soon grew to 10.
These early directors created and built a corpus which, despite global financial challenges, has grown considerably, albeit that COVID-19 has now created unwanted pressure. Annual interest covers the costs of running the organisation which means that 100% of club donations are spent on our ARH programs.
Since 2000, Australian Rotary Health has tackled a far greater challenge facing our society, that being to improve mental health. When looking at the numbers of Australians currently diagnosed with a mental illness, the statistics are overwhelming, particularly in our young people. Research shows us that half of mental illness begins by the age of 14 and if there is one piece of advice to give to parents, it is, ‘Don’t fight in front of the kids.’
Mental illness is non-discriminatory and not one of us is immune. For an adult now not to be affected personally, either through their own situation or through exposure to family members and friends who are suffering, would be rare stroke of fortune.
ARH is now one of the largest non-government funders of mental illness research in Australia. It has also effectively engaged Rotary clubs at a local level to increase community awareness of mental illness and to reduce stigma. ARH has a great team of research advisors, all honorary, such as Professors Tony Jorm, Michael Sawyer, Ron Rapee and current Chair Jane Pirkis from the University of Melbourne, an Australian leader in suicide research.
ARH continues to develop a wonderful and supportive relationship with young researchers striving to find answers. Our Lift the Lid on Mental Illness campaign has been widely embraced by Rotarians over the past three years and will increase our ability to fund even greater numbers of researchers.
Here are six examples of ARH mental health funding which have made a positive impact:
Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) … first created by health education nurse Betty Kitchener AM and Professor Tony Jorm. Now adopted in over 25 countries with over a million people trained.
Suicide Prevention … Professor Jane Pirkis has shown that more balanced media reporting of suicide can reduce ‘copycat’ behaviours
Cool Kids Program… created by Professor Ron Rapee, within six months of program starting, three out of four anxious young people are completely free of their anxiety disorder. Now used in around 25 countries.
Teen Mental Health First Aid (tMHFA) … Dr Laura Hart and Dr Claire Kelly have developed a safe and effective program for students to support their peers facing mental health problems, with a trusted adult involved. Now with world-wide support, including Lady Gaga’s Born This Way Foundation.
Food & Mood … Professor Felice Jacka was the first to demonstrate the link of diet to mental disorders and bipolar. Now recognised as a world leader in the field of Nutritional Psychiatry research.
Brain Training … Dr Louise Mewton has shown that brain games/training strengthens areas of the brain associated with mental illness. Especially effective for young people experiencing cognitive difficulties.
These are just half a dozen of the many research projects which were initially funded by ARH.
Australian Rotary Health is a great Rotary story and one that I trust has an equally wonderful future.
Gregory Ross