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Our History

Our History : Serving the Community Since 1930

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 Mental Hygiene Council (VMHC). This was an era during which the State Government's handling of mental health was the responsibility of the Lunacy Department.

The impetus for the Victorian Mental Hygiene Council (VMHC) was generated by the Society for the Promotion of the Welfare of the Mentally Afflicted (Victoria). This society was formed due to the public concern at the treatment of patients at what had been the Kew Lunatic Asylum, later Willsmere. An address, delivered at a meeting on January 18, 1929 by a respected former federal parliamentarian, William Guy Higgs, was for forming a society for the promotion for the welfare of the mentally afflicted.

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 1952, the English psychiatrist Dr. Eric Cunningham Dax emigrated to Melbourne, Australia to take up an appointment as founding Chairman of the Victorian Mental Hygiene Council (VMHC), (later known as the Mental Health Authority). The Authority was formed as a response to public concern about the treatment and welfare of psychiatric patients, and particularly as a response to the Kennedy Report of 1950 which highlighted the plight of these patients in Victoria in the immediate post war era. Dax remained in this position until 1968, introducing major reforms of mental health services.

The Victorian Mental Hygiene Council (VMHC), continued to operate outside the framework of government as an influential body in non-government mental health advocacy, took mental health to have ‘sociological, psychological, anthropological, spiritual, educational, biological and medical aspects’ in a letter it wrote to the Minister for Health in 1975. Its wide definition meant that the tasks which were seen to be potentially related to ‘mental health’ could go far beyond the traditional medical treatment of psychiatric illness. In 1975 the VMHC’s members included community leaders, teachers, clergymen, employers, housewives, retired people, office workers, doctors, nurses, psychologists, psychiatrists, and representatives of many agencies including social workers.

In July 1981 five people gathered at the Department of Psychiatry at Melbourne University to form the Mental Health Foundation of Australia, which was initiated to make the Victorian Mental Hygiene Council (VMHC) part of a federation under the newly founded Australian National Association for Mental Health (ANAMH). 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. 


In 1981 the Foundation defined some 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 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 based on 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, with the Mental Health Foundation Victoria (the successor of the Victorian Mental Hygiene Council), pioneered the introduction of the National Depression Awareness Campaign which ultimately provided the motivation for the National Depression Initiative (beyondblue).

The MHFA and MHFVic 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 and MHFVic 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. This has led to the development of an innovative program funded by the Pratt Foundation called the “Building Early Attachment and Resilience project” which included partners such as The University of Melbourne and The Royal Women’s Hospital and continues in 2018 to produce ground breaking work for mothers and babes.

Over the years, many 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.)


The New Era:

Professor Graham Burrows AO had been instrumental in the work and development of the Mental Health Foundation of Australia and the Mental Health Foundation Victoria since 1981. Unfortunately, he died suddenly in January 2016 leaving the organization to reassess its structure and reinvent itself.

In June 2017 a new constitution and articles of association were developed and adopted. The objects of the new body were revised to better reflect the sentiments and priorities of the 21st century. All aspects of the Foundation were amalgamated under a single Board of Directors and the single entity of the Mental Health Foundation Australia established.

The 2017 charitable objects for which MHFA is established are to:

(a)          provide support and relief to people experiencing a mental health problem, their families and communities;

(b)          promote mental health and increase public awareness of both mental health and mental illness;

(c)           engage in activities aimed at building resilience, identifying risk factors, developing understanding and acceptance, and providing information to the public regarding referral pathways;

(d)          support and sponsor research into the causes and effects of mental health problems aimed at developing initiatives for building mental health, resilience and prevention;

(e)          collaborate, liaise and make submissions to all levels of Government, public and private agencies in the development of evidence-based, innovative and relevant mental health initiatives;

(f)           develop and deliver mental health education and training to support the general community, people of all ages experiencing stress, anxiety, depression and chronic mental illnesses;

(g)          respond to social trauma caused by unemployment, loss of capacity, abuse and social stressors, including:

(1)          alienation;

(2)          gender diversity;

(3)          refugee issues; and

(4)          natural disasters, which place people at risk of developing or are subsequently suffering from mental health problems; and

(h)          encourage and support the engagement of persons with a mental illness or having recovered from a mental illness in pursuing (a) to (g).

In December of 2017 a new Board of Directors was elected, and a new era of development and community service established under the mission banner of Better Mental Health for All”.


History of Mental Health Week 1981-2017 and Mental Health Month 2018 ongoing

In 1984, as part of  Mental Health Week an open day was organised at Royal Park. For the first time, wards were opened to public. 

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.

In 2018, the new Mental Health Foundation Australia undertook an evolution from Mental Health Week to establish Mental Health Month. Mental Health Month was to focus more on local government areas and establish official launches and forums in many more regional areas than had been the focus previously. Currently 21 local government areas have dedicated council supported forums.

As well as the increased number of local government area events, the Mental Health Foundation Australia has initiated a 50 person “Multicultural Ambassador’s” program which has established a Gala Multicultural Dinner as a highlight of the month.

Additional highlights include: A “Youth Preventative Mental Health Forum”; a “Community Mental Health Walk”; and, a “Local Government Councillor’s Symposium”.

Of special note is the MHFA’s “Governor’s Breakfast” at Government House were awards for national contributions to mental health will be given to an individual and an organization. Hopefully this will become an annual and nationally recognized event for excellent in the area of mental health effort.


Into the Future:

The Mental Health Foundation Australia has emerged from its ninety-year history even more invigorated and passionate about its mission to improve community mental health. Our new mandate includes the principle of working cooperatively with all like-minded individuals, organizations and government bodies to help all Australians realize their optimal level of mental health and potential.