In 2004, the last year for which records are available, 2,074 Australians killed themselves. It seems a lot for a country fabulously blessed with wealth, peace and space, and for a people who like to respond to difficulty with a diffident grunt of the national motto: “No worries.”
“That 2,074,” Jeff Kennett says, “is higher than our road toll. We put huge efforts into reducing road deaths, but we’ve never put the same amount of money into preventing suicide.”
Kennett is chairman of beyondblue (beyondblue.org.au), a pioneering depression initiative. It raises awareness, agitates for funding and offers help to those people plagued by depression – sometimes surprisingly directly. “People get my number,” says Kennett, fiddling with a beyondblue wristband in his Melbourne office. “I don’t know how, but they do. I can’t tell you what it is to take a call from someone distressed, and to help them.”
He would, however, strike many as an unlikely Samaritan. Between 1992 and 1999, Kennett was the brash, divisive premier of the south-eastern state of Victoria. He led the Liberal Party to two election victories. His tenure remedied Victoria’s parlous finances, but did not earn him a reputation for compassion. He sold off AUD$33bn (€19.8bn) in state assets, and sacked 50,000 public servants and 7,000 teachers.
His new prominence in mental health seemed incongruous to many. Kennett has no personal history of depression, but became interested in the disease after his daughter lost two male friends in deliberate car crashes, and asked him what he intended to do about it. He had little time to do much until his defeat as premier; beyondblue was founded the next year. It now has 25 employees and an annual AUD$70m (€41.6m) budget.
“The biggest problem,” says Kennett, “is men. Men who don’t have relationships with doctors, men who don’t have friends to talk to. And that’s more pronounced in rural communities, where men are brought up to be tougher than John Wayne.” It’s a key concern when dealing with the country’s drought-hit farmers, many of whom kill themselves without ever seeking help.
The WHO believes depression will become the second-greatest debilitator of health by 2020 – even in a land which still refers to itself as “the Lucky Country”.
“Is this more important than being premier?” Kennett echoes, incredulous at the question. “Absolutely.”
Watch this space
Sitting on the porch of her Queensland home one evening in 2002, gazing up at the stars, Dr Alice Gorman decided to redirect her archaeological skills. Who, she wondered, is protecting our space heritage?
There are an estimated 10,000 pieces of debris in orbit, and with more countries (and individuals such as scientist Stephen Hawking) eager to explore the “last frontier”, space is likely to become even more of a junkyard. A United Nations report published in 1999 stated that some of the debris poses a serious threat to future space activity, and will have to be destroyed.
But before the space cull kicks off – lasers or salvage missions have been suggested – Dr Gorman is calling on the United Nations this month to create a protected “heritage list”, including the Vanguard 1 satellite, launched in 1958 and now the oldest man-made object in orbit.
Meanwhile, since 2000, the American archaeologist Beth O’Leary has been lobbying Nasa to save Tranquility Base, the site on the moon where Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed in July 1969. But her desire to preserve the area intact, including that US flag and scattered space boots, has been rejected on the grounds that it could be seen as the US staking a claim over the moon – which goes against a UN treaty preventing anyone owning it.
Dr Gorman believes that the US government actually does want to stakea territorial claim over the Moon, but to protect Tranquility Base would mean they were “showing their hand too soon”. She also claims that the US wants to put nuclear weapons on the moon, and cites a “chilling” 20-year-old US Congress report on how weapons would function in space, including notes on hand-to-hand combat.
Other analysts are expressing concerns about a new age of weapons in space, particularly after the US voted against a UN resolution to prevent an arms race in outer space in October 2006.
With such out-of-this-world politics at play, and a fresh space race clearly hotting up – China, India, the UK and Russia have recently announced new missions – Dr Gorman suspects nations will soon start claiming space resources for themselves, such as asteroids for mining.
All the more reason to preserve space junk. “Maybe the only evidence that a country has a right to be in geostationary orbit will be an old satellite. It’s not impossible that being able to claim access to an orbit could be a bit like Aboriginal people in Australia being able to say, ‘This is where my ancestors camped.’”