IAN WEBSTER. A tribute to Anne Deveson – understanding the homeless mentally ill

Jan 23, 2017

Anne Deveson’ s media presence spearheaded the media’s involvement in public health and mental health. She contributed at so many levels – social commentaries and documentaries -which challenged our sensibilities.

She was a humanitarian who affected the lives of many people especially those with mental health problems. Her many contributions have been widely reported in the media following her death on 12th December 2016.

My first contact with Anne was being interviewed by her on 2GB about health care controversies and prevention; at that time doctors rarely spoke publicly about health and professional issues.

Anne believed the public media was an essential part of public health. As the director of the Australian Film and Television School from 1985 to 1988 she was able to influence the upcoming media writers, film-makers and producers.

In 1984 the NHMRC appointed a small group – Professor Charles Bridges-Webb from Sydney University, Kirsten Garrett of the ABC, Anne and me – to advise on the media’s role in public health. Buried somewhere in the archives is our brief report, “The media and public health”.

After one of our working meetings at Sydney University, Anne asked me to take her to the Matthew Talbot Hostel for the Homeless in Woolloomooloo, Sydney. It took much courage for her to enter, alone, that unruly, potentially threatening, all-male environment. She walked among the men and asked had any of them seen her son Johnathon. She often searched for Johnathon in the haunts of homeless people in Kings Cross and Woolloomooloo in inner Sydney.

Johnathon frequently visited the Matthew Talbot medical clinic where he had established a positive relationship with the nurses but his relationship with me, a male with authority, was pretty brittle. He was difficult and at times threatening. He injected street drugs and other unidentified substances.Johnathon’s behaviour frequently brought him into contact with the police. This was very distressing for Anne. She wanted them to know that her son was not a bad person but suffered a serious mental illness and needed treatment, not incarceration. She asked me to write a ‘medical’ letter for Johnathon to carry with him explaining his mental illness and that, if apprehended, he needed medical care. The letter said in part, “On occasions, the staff here have felt that he is a danger to himself and we have been most disappointed that the formal psychiatric services have either been unable or unwilling to take a stronger line in confining him to a treatment centre for sufficient time to improve his mental state and physical condition.

One Saturday morning the phone rang at my home. Anne was calling from Adelaide. She had been Chair of the South Australian Film Corporation and was there on a brief work visit. She had just been told that Johnathon had been picked up and taken to the Emergency Department at St Vincent’s Hospital. She wanted him to be admitted for formal psychiatric assessment because she felt he was becoming more stable and would improve following an in-patient admission.

Calls to the Emergency Department and then the psychiatric unit were fruitless. The Emergency Department said he was not there and had been handed over to the mental health team. The mental health team made that dreaded statement “we have no beds” and he had been discharged. A few days later he was found in a coma from a drug overdose in Kings Cross.

Three months after that, June 1986, another phone call and a police visit informed Anne that Johnathon died at the Edward Eager Lodge, a night refuge, from a drug overdose.

Anne’s book, “Tell me I’m here” tells of Johnathon’s troubled life. It has had a powerful influence on our understanding of mental illness, the difficulties faced by a parent(s) with a mentally ill child and the “catch-as-catch-can” life of the homeless mentally ill.

The moving and significant part of Johnathon’s story for me, is the description of the graveside service at the Rookwood Cemetery in the wind and rain. The minister likened “Johnathon to an instrument, too finely tuned to bear the vicissitudes of life.” On other side of the grave, through the rain, Anne could see the homeless, crazy and sick people from the Matthew Talbot Hostel. Among them Ray Bourke, a supervisor, who had had many difficult interactions with Johnathon.

Her son did have friends, friends who shared with him the experience of homelessness and the terrors of the mind.

Afterword – Anne Deveson made many contributions to health care and mental health. As Commissioner on the Human Relationships Royal Commission, she proposed changes needed to humanise undergraduate medical and health professional courses; she co-founded the mental health organisation SANE; she chaired a review of the implementation of the NSW Mental Health Act; and, was a member of the NSW Mental Health Tribunal. Towards the end of her life she spoke freely about the troubling experience of Alzheimer’s Disease. (She gave me permission to speak freely about her son Johnathon’s life, as I knew it.)

Ian Webster is Emeritus Professor of Public Health and Community Medicine, UNSW.

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