Patrick McGorry must be the best-known psychiatrist in the country. And it’s not just because (as he puts it) he once fluked his way to Australian of the Year. To borrow a saying from the music industry: it took years of hard work for McGorry to become an overnight success. And he’s had to play the game in order to get there.
Before the 2004 election, McGorry decided to turn advocate and hire media and government relations advisers to help sell his message of early intervention for psychosis. Eight years later, the mental health sector is flush with cash, after the federal government allocated $1.5 billion of new funding in the budget last year — much of which has been directed towards youth mental health services championed by McGorry.
“It is a massive fight to actually get things to change,” the professor and mental health activist tells The Power Index. “Particularly in areas like health and mental health, the institutionalised status quo is fairly vicious at defending itself.”
Observers in the sector say McGorry’s been successful in achieving that change. “I don’t think you can underestimate the influence he’s had,” says former Australian General Practice Network boss Dr Tony Hobbs. “And clearly his role as Australian of the Year gave him an extraordinary high profile and increased his sphere of influence to the highest echelons of government.”
McGorry is a world-leading expert on adolescent mental health. He’s been a key thinker in this field for three decades now and runs Orygen Youth Health — an organisation specialising in clinical and research activities.
As the nation’s most visible advocate for mental health reform, McGorry — along with fellow advocates such as professor Ian Hickie — has been integral in turning that community feeling into a commitment from all the major parties to act on mental health reform.
“If we want to influence something like mental health then we’ve seriously got to engage with those processes ourselves,” Hickie explains to The Power Index. “Not simply leave it to Canberra lobbyists or the professional organisations who really don’t have the same credibility.”
Of course, they still needed a little bit of help from a lobby group. Progressive activist group GetUp! was enlisted by McGorry and co to help maintain the rage in the lead-up to budget night and have been identified as important players in the outcome.
But according to those making the decisions, McGorry deserves a lot of the kudos. Politicians praise him for his willingness to talk to all sides of politics (which goes so far that advisers escort him to the offices of their opposite numbers).
“He’s one of Australia’s most innovative thinkers in mental health,” Mental Health Minister Mark Butler tells The Power Index. “His advice during the development of that package was critically important.”
Adds opposition mental health spokesperson Senator Concetta Fierravanti-Wells: “He knows he has to deal with the government of the day but appreciates the moving landscape that is Australian politics.”
When The Power Index meets up for an interview, it’s in McGorry’s modestly sized Parkville office, just north of Melbourne. Orygen is a casual workplace and the white-haired professor is wearing chinos and a pink shirt.
McGorry was born in Dublin but moved around Britain when he was growing up. His father was a tuberculosis physician before working as a coal miner’s doctor in Wales.
The family moved to Australia when McGorry was a teenager on what was supposed to be a three-year holiday. They ended up living near the water in Newcastle, NSW. It’s there he learnt how to surf, a hobby he still enjoys today (“I just bought a new board last week”).
He initially thought about a career in general medicine after university, before being seduced by psychiatry.
During the hour-long discussion, the personality traits that have no doubt aided McGorry’s public health breakthrough are visible: he’s calm, gracious and utterly convinced his crusade is the right one.
When asked about the Australian of the Year award, he tells The Power Index modestly he was lucky to win, after a student of one of his colleagues nominated him anonymously. Still, he rates the award as being very helpful in increasing awareness of his advocacy.
“People would meet with me much more easily and I’d get more invitations and more positive answers,” he says. “It sunk a bit once that was over, but not totally. It’s still improved.”
But it hasn’t all been plain sailing. McGorry has experienced fierce backlash since the funding win.