Our History

Mental Health Foundation Australia had its origins in Australia's first mental health association, the Mental Health Foundation (Victoria), which was established in 1930 as the Victorian Council for Mental Hygiene. This was an era during which the State Government's handling of mental health was the responsibility of the Lunacy Department.

In July 1981 five people gathered at the Department of Psychiatry at Melbourne University to form the Mental Health Foundation of Australia. They were Dr Graham Dene Burrows, Graeme Angus, Anne Thomson, the Reverend Alan Jones and Albert Moore.

The Memorandum and Articles of Association were duly signed at this unheralded ceremony to establish the MHFA as a charitable organisation which would draw heightened attention to the nation's rapidly mounting mental health problem and mould a collective effort to combat it. 

At the time, people with severe mental problems were commonly regarded as loonies, whose families, sensitive to the public stigma, kept them out of sight. Severely ill people  were committed to asylums to live as tormented prisoners in cells with barred windows. Their treatment was little better than that of jail inmates, but unlike prisoners, held little prospect of parole. The overdue closure of these asylums began in the 1980's.

In 1981 the Foundation defined it's fundamental aims:

  • To encourage and promote mental health at a personal and social level according to such values as justice, equality and humaneness.
  • To support, through financial assistance, those individuals and organisations in Australia making a contribution to mental health and enhancing mental health values.
  • To enter into co-operative relationships with others working for similar mental health goals.
  • To change attitudes to mental health through socially informed mental health education.
  • To ensure that all the decisions of the Foundation were made on the basis of prior and full consultation with those most affected.
  • To promote mental health community processes based on development, remedial, preventative, and rehabilitative practices.

In 1984 the MHFA pioneered the introduction of the National Depression Awareness Campaign which ultimately provided the motivation for the National Depression Initiative (beyondblue).

The MHFA has also been the source of other support services and organisations such as the G-Line counselling service for problem gamblers, the Addiction Research Institute, the Anxiety Recovery Centre, ARAFEMI and the Carers Council.

In 2005, the MHFA launched a major initiative called the "Embrace the Future" program. This was directed towards helping children to overcome difficult circumstances and go on to lead healthy, successful lives.

In 2006, the MHFA played a major role in the introduction of the five year National Mental Health Plan with attached funding of $4 billion.

Over the years, a large number of prominent people have actively supported our work. These include  Dame Elisabeth Murdoch, Gough Whitlam, Malcom Fraser, Bob Hawke, Paul Keating, John Howard, Captain Mark Phillips, Prince Charles, Princess Diana, Princess Mary of Denmark, Mrs Cherie Blair and Mrs Rosalyn Carter.

For a more comprehensive history of our organisation, see  Cornerstones: History of the Mental Health Foundation of Australia  1981-2006 by Kevin Balshaw.  A copy of this book can be obtained by contacting our office.

History of Mental Health Week - Royal Park

In 1984, as part of  Mental Health Week an open day was organised at Royal Park hospital by psychiatrist  Dr. Mandula O'Connor. For the first time, wards were opened to public.  Visitors could watch an audio-visual presentation on the aims  and goals of Royal Park Psychiatric Hospital which were:

  • To provide the best possible in-patient treatments to severely mentally ill patients
  • To treat patients in humane and dignified manner
  • To give due care to the protection of individual patient rights.

The stigma of mental illness was intense and the audience primarily consisted of relatives of in-patients.

Contrast that with Mental Health Week today. There is a palpable difference in community attitudes and in the awareness and acceptance of mental illness.

Schools, universities and colleges, community organisations, health services and others now all run events for Mental Health Week. Illnesses  like anxiety, depression and post -traumatic stress disorder are  regarded by many as 
relatively "normal illnesses", and the sufferers are not seen as aliens from Mars.

There is still a large gap in the acceptance of mental illness in the community and Mental Health Week goes some way towards reducing that gap.