Anne Deveson

February 08, 2017

It is a great privilege to rise and talk on the enormous contribution of Anne Deveson to Australia over a very, very long period of time. I did not know Anne personally, but I knew her daughter, Georgia Blain, who tragically passed away two days before Anne did. Georgia was a very close friend of my family. But my reflections on Anne's contribution really are informed by the honour I had of being Australia's Minister for Mental Health and Ageing over three years. In mental health particularly—the understanding that Australians have of the challenges of mental illness, particularly severe and persistent mental illness—Anne Deveson made an unparalleled contribution to Australia. I think it is important that we recognise her enormous legacy in that sense.

I think her overall contribution to Australia is reflected in the fact that her passing was recognised by the Prime Minister, the Leader of the Opposition and the parliament before question time. As you know, Deputy Speaker, it is a very rare occasion for the passing of a person who has not served as a public official to be recognised in that way. I think that recognition reflected across the parliament a deep sense of Anne's long and very broad contribution to Australian life. As the Leader of the Opposition said, Anne, over 40 years ago, was a member of a landmark royal commission initiated by Prime Minister Gough Whitlam into human relationships that led to quite a signature change in the way in which Australians thought about homosexuality, about a woman's right to choose and about the responsibility that society has to build refuges, particularly for women and children fleeing domestic violence. These things seem a matter of course in 2017, but they were incredibly difficult, highly contested social debates back in the mid 1970s, debates in which Anne played an extraordinarily important part—along with others, but she herself played an extraordinarily important part. Those decades ago, it became clear why Anne was able to play such a significant role in talking about social change: because she was able to combine a deep sense of compassion and a deep sense of social justice with extraordinary communication skills and a very high profile in this country. That, to my mind, is really what Anne was able to do in the area of mental illness.

Our challenges in the area of mental illness and also in relation to Alzheimer's—which I will talk about briefly as well—have been a challenge of bringing these issues into the open. They are not rare. As you know, Deputy Speaker, and as other members of this House know, very few families escape without confronting the challenges of mental illness. Anne has confronted them very deeply indeed. But for far too long in this country it has been an invisible story. It is one talked about within living rooms; it is not talked about in the broader social discourse. Happily, it is talked about more than it was when we were much younger than we are now, Deputy Speaker, and in large part that is due to Anne Deveson. She brought these things into the open, but in bringing them into the open—in having public discussions and public stories that reflected the experience of so many Australian families—she was also able to use that open debate to start to battle stigma. In that sense, we owe Anne an enormous debt for her legacy.

But I do want to say that Anne's challenge was a particularly deep challenge. Her experience, as people know, was with schizophrenia—a low-prevalence but very severe and persistent part of the family of mental disorders that, back then, was not well understood and not particularly well treated. I think it is important that, while we recognise the extraordinary contribution Anne made to lifting our understanding of schizophrenia, there is still a long way for us to go. Over the last two or three decades, we have made enormous strides, I think, as a society, particularly in our understanding and compassion towards the more high-prevalence disorders like anxiety and depression, but we must be honest that our understanding and our compassion as a society for the psychotic disorders, particularly schizophrenia, still leaves a lot to be desired. I remember, while I was Minister for Mental Health and Ageing, being told by a professor that a 21-year-old today diagnosed with schizophrenia has a lower life expectancy than a 21-year-old who is diagnosed with HIV/AIDS. It is not that long ago that that would have been unimaginable. It says two things. It says an enormous amount about the strides that we have made in treating HIV, and it says an enormous amount about the challenges that the many, many Australians living with schizophrenia face in relation to not only their mental illness but also a whole range of comorbidities associated with physical illnesses.

Anne's lasting legacy is not just the extraordinary contribution she made to Australian society by talking about her own story and writing that book about her much-loved elder son, Jonathan; it is also the establishment of a framework to drive that cause of a better understanding of schizophrenia through what we then called the Schizophrenia Australia Foundation and we now know as SANE Australia. This is a wonderful organisation, led for so many years by Barbara Hocking—who, tragically, also died only in the last few months—and now led by the wonderful, incomparable Jack Heath, and is still doing wonderful work in this area.

Late in her life, as both the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition mentioned in their very fine remarks yesterday in the House, Anne also discovered that she had Alzheimer's, as her mother, her grandmother and her aunt had had. When I was Minister for Mental Health and Ageing, one of the things that really struck me about our experience as a community with the family of dementia illnesses, particularly Alzheimer's, is our inability to talk openly about our experiences with them. I remember talking to Alzheimer's Australia very early on in my time as the minister and trying to think of people other than Hazel Hawke and her family, who had really taken the country on a journey, in a public way, with their experience of Alzheimer's.

Like the family of mental illnesses, it is still a condition that is kept inside the family home, that is not talked about sufficiently in the public space, in the public arena, because we know that this is a condition that affects so many families. The number of diagnoses of dementia is climbing very, very quickly, partly because we are getting better at diagnosing it, obviously, and because of the ageing of the population. Anne, after learning of her diagnosis, again took the community into her confidence and spoke openly about her experience with Alzheimer's, which was again a wonderful contribution to the community from someone who had already contributed so much.

I pay tribute to the public contribution that Anne Deveson made over decades, particularly over the last couple of decades. In my small experience as the Minister for Mental Health and Ageing, her contribution to a vastly overdue challenge that our country had to better understand and better support people experiencing mental illness, and their families, was really quite unparalleled. It is not alone, but it was an extraordinary contribution that she made.

Having some personal connection to her family, through Georgia, I understand the depth of grief being felt by that family at the moment. It is a grief that is reflected at the public level, because that family was so well known to all of us over so many decades—really, from the time that Jonathan, Georgia and Josh were very little children.

On behalf of so many people who have benefited from Anne's work in the area of mental health and, very recently, in the area of dementia, I thank Anne for her contribution and send our commiserations to her remaining son, Joshua; and to Georgia's partner, Andrew, and their daughter, who I understand is phenomenally talented, Odessa.