Vaccinating against mental health key to building wellbeing & resilience

23 August 2021


A notable feature of Premier Steven Marshall’s daily press conferences during the recent seven-day lockdown was the regular acknowledgment of the mental health challenges that many people would have faced during this period of enforced isolation.


The pandemic has seriously tested the resolve of all of us, intensifying the difficulty of our lives which are already exhausting and complex, without the addition of a global pandemic.


But what if we had the psychological tools to rise to any challenge that comes our way? To stave off mental illness by boosting our mental fitness?




At the start of the pandemic, most of the messaging was around the importance of good hygiene practices to prevent infection. Now we are talking about vaccination as the key to our roadmap out of the pandemic.


We should be thinking about mental health in a similar way, argues Gabrielle Kelly, who founded SAHMRI’s Wellbeing and Resilience Centre in 2014, now consulting on building psychological health and resilience, and who is the guest speaker at the Law Society’s legal Profession Dinner on 27 August.


She thinks it’s time for the psychological vaccination of the nation to help everyone cope with and thrive in ever-changing life and work.


Psychological hygiene, has in Gabrielle’s view, been a missing part of the conversation about mental health, but the tools have been developed not only for individuals to immunise themselves against some mental illness, but for industries and whole communities to be able to build psychological strength.


“Just as you can vaccinate yourself against physical illness you can vaccinate yourself against preventable mental illness, by building your mental strength, your resilience and your capacity to withstand, not only the normal challenges of life, but the unexpected ones, such as a global pandemic,” Gabrielle said.


“If we think about dental hygiene , Gabrielle explained, “we do prevention at the individual and systems level: individuals brush and floss their teeth and we add fluoride to the water system. I think we need to normalise psychological hygiene, so we can avoid some types of mental illness in individuals and that’s essentially what positive psychology is doing. It’s gathering the science of psychology and directing it towards people to help individuals and employees have higher wellbeing and more psychological capital.”


Gabrielle said that South Australia was now a world leader in “building wellbeing at scale”, largely thanks to the influence of Professor Martin Seligman, who was a Thinker in Residence in SA in 2012-13. He is a former President of the American Psychological Association who decided to dedicate the rest of his life to preventing of mental illness through positive psychology. When Gabrielle proposed a residency on psychological health and wellbeing to the State Government in 2012, it was viewed with suspicion; the general perception of “wellbeing” was as a kind of lightweight, feel-good, whimsical mantra.


“Wellbeing was seen as a women’s thing and maybe a yoga class, and you couldn’t really have a serious conversation about it. By suggesting this residency, I was trying to advance people’s understanding of the scientific evidence about the how and why of building wellbeing, in order to seriously engage with it. By linking the well-established science of wellbeing and resilience, we were able to make the case that building those capacities can help protect against some but not all, mental illness and will help build human resilience, in the face of challenges, such as we see now with COVID and climate impacts” she said.


Now, building wellbeing is a thing: it is acknowledged widely as useful and as Seligman put it:


“It’s measurable, teachable and learnable”.


Seligman’s work with a powerful collaboration of local health and education leaders over two years, led Gabrielle to set up the Wellbeing and Resilience Centre within SAHMRI , kickstarting a world-first initiative to measure, build and embed wellbeing across the society, reaching thousands here, both in the community and in workplaces.


“That is now an advantage to us here. With the advent of the June 2021, ISO 45003 Psychological Health and Safety at Work, there are new global guidelines for managing psychological injury risk at work. The 2018 Australian Work Health and Safety Act has also created, for the first time, a national legislative obligation for industry to identify and manage ‎psychological injury risk, so the stakes are high for all industry to make workplace wellbeing and the prevention of psychological injury a top priority. Add to this the $17 billion per annum impact of mental illness on absenteeism and presenteeism in the Australian workforce, then the proven positive impact of a psychologically healthy workplace on productivity, recruitment and retention, makes it a must have for business.”




Gabrielle’s interest in wellbeing and psychological health was piqued long before the phrase entered the mainstream lexicon. In the 1980s she had made two documentaries about climate change, after she was invited to film a global meeting of the Sundance Institute of Sustainable Development, which was convened by actor-director Robert Redford.


One of the main goals of Gabrielle’s film Greenbucks, was to bridge what was a hostile divide between environmental activism and the business community about the climate challenge.


Upon observing how world leaders have consistently failed to take positive action on climate change over 20 years, it occurred to her people needed to build their psychological capacity, in order to engage with climate change, and other difficult contemporary complex issues that need to be faced.


“It’s self-evident that it is useful for individuals to build their mental toughness and emotional strength; we all want that for our children and we all need that to succeed at work. But as our democracies unfold, we need psychologically healthy communities to solve problems without bloodshed or civil unrest, such as the attacks on the White House this year. Our democratic societies need to be able to step up to grapple with and come to sufficient agreement about, the ever-growing list of complex problems that we cannot escape,” Gabrielle said.


In a sector such as the legal profession, solving problems is a core business activity, and it goes without saying that practitioners are more effective problem solvers if they are operating at optimum psychological capacity.


The Society’s recent Mental Health Survey revealed that a significant number of SA lawyers are struggling with mental illness issues, triggered by factors such as excessive workloads, billing pressures, poor work culture and perfectionism. Concerningly, 47% of respondents to the survey reported that being in the legal profession has had a negative impact on their overall wellbeing.


She says that while this is only marginally higher than the level of mental health challenges impacting many other industries, it is still a problem.


And here is the encouraging news – firstly, the methodology of successfully building psychological health in the workforce has already been developed and tested. Secondly, it’s fairly straightforward for workplaces to implement processes that will benefit staff wellbeing, thirdly, wellbeing can be measured and fourthly, these methodologies have been proven to increase profitability.


“If you invest in building psychological health and wellbeing of your workforce, you will reduce the cost of psychological injury claims dramatically, which are rising fast and are 8 times more costly than physical injury claims, at an average cost of $1.2 million per claim,” Gabrielle said.


“I think that law firms are going to need to ask themselves the question – how are we going to manage this risk in our small, medium and large businesses and into our justice system?”


Business leaders, Gabrielle said, should entrench wellbeing as a measurable indicator like other key performance indicators.


“Start with wellbeing measurement. Once you put the measurement of psychological health into your normal business metrics that you use to drive your business, you’ve got the lever you need to create the logic to invest in straightforward, easy-to-deliver programs which will help build the psychological health of the staff and create a wellbeing culture over time. As with the introduction of OH&S, it’s a long-term commitment.”


“This is business-as-usual approach to drive profit and effectiveness: measure things that matter, take action to create change and track whether that change is working.”


Gabrielle said that SA boasts great universities, psychologists, and of course, the SAHMRI Centre, who can help businesses track the psychological health of workforces. SAHMRI offers a globally leading wellbeing technology platform, now called the “Be Well Tracker” which, with support from the State government, Gabrielle commissioned and developed, with her team of researchers and a solutions and enterprise architecture group, headed by Jan McConchie and delivered by Luca Gnezda and Taptu, over three years.


“CEOs and boards don’t need to be anxious about what to do,” Gabrielle assured. “The what to do has already been created, tested and published about. Lead, measure, build and embed wellbeing. Each business needs to add up what they’re spending on stress claims, on recruitment and retention, and do the sums on that. There’s the money from the current budgets to invest on wellbeing to mitigate risk and ensure future productivity.”


BUILDING RESILIENCE: another capacity in psychological health


When describing what it means to be resilient, Gabrielle deferred to Brigadier General (retired) Rhonda Cornum, a former US Army flight surgeon turned leading global resilience educator , who defines a resilient person as one who is physically fit, mentally tough and emotionally strong.


Gabrielle observed that the Society’s mental health and wellbeing survey seemed to indicate that the profession has largely recognised the importance of physical fitness to mental health, but the building of mental toughness and emotional strength were missing pieces of the puzzle.


“Resilient thinking skills are the go. Emotional self-regulation, perseverance, mindfulness, good communication and connection skills, keeping the focus on what is going well and what is important, the ability to accept what cannot be changed and more acuity about out-moded bullying and gender biased behaviour- anyone can learn these human skills”.


Gabrielle said lawyers would greatly benefit from a better understanding of the risk factors that could lead to a deterioration of their own psychological state.


Just as we have to keep an eye on cholesterol levels and adjust our diets accordingly, so we need to really know the state of our mental health by measuring it, and recognise that some of our coping mechanisms, to handle stress for instance, which can include alcohol as a go-to response, are not helping. Learning better ways to deal with adversity, anxiety, bullying and heavy workloads, as well as understanding our individual personalities, is critical to building resilience in the legal profession.


“As the legal community informs itself with this recent survey about the risk factors of poor psycho-social health in the profession and as it understands the legislative obligation, the next logical step is for both the individual to take action on their own behalf and for the profession to get systematic about building wellbeing in the workplace.” Gabrielle said.




Gabrielle said that we need to make a distinction between treating mental illness and building mental health, that prevention of illness requires individual and organisations to do new things.


“How do you activate individuals to want to care about their psychological health and wellbeing? How do you activate the legal profession to be systematically interested in wellbeing in the workplace and how you do you activate the community to want the same? These are important questions to answer if we want to be able to better handle the complex present and improve the functioning of the legal profession which affects our whole justice system. Ultimately this is important more generally, if we want to reduce domestic and gender violence, alcohol and drug abuse, recidivism and ultimately build a better future, together. This is the purpose of the psychological vaccination of the nation.”


Not only will this make for more happier, healthier and more productive lawyers and their families, it will contribute to lifting our society away from the myopic, shallow discourse that leads to worst-best decision making, towards a more robust, resilient and healthy democracy that is better equipped to deal with the great challenges of our time.

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