Sometimes in life it is best to take a step back and give ourselves time to reassess what’s really important. I did just that in the months after losing the prime ministership. This period of reflection led me to make three big decisions.
First, that I would refrain from being involved in, or commenting on, day-to-day domestic politics. It was time for the next generation of leaders to take charge.
Second, I would do what I could to encourage young Australians, particularly young women, to think about the world they live in and understand their responsibility to be active in shaping its future.
This has been a theme of my activities whether I am lecturing at the University of Adelaide as an honorary professor, appearing as patron of the Layne Beachley Aim for the Stars Foundation or fulfilling my role as chancellor of Ducere, a social enterprise providing leading-edge business courses.
Third, I decided that I would make the most of my status as a former prime minister to promote the causes I believe in.
Also, from my days growing up in Adelaide, mental health and preventing suicide have held a personal significance for me.
After our family migrated from Wales my Dad took up training as a psychiatric nurse.
As a child, I talked with Dad about his job and occasionally visited him at work at Adelaide’s Glenside Hospital which, in those days, accommodated everyone from the acutely unwell to young children with Down syndrome.
My sister and I would go there and have Christmas parties with the kids. That was just our life.
So it seemed the most natural fit when Jeff Kennett approached me to join the beyondblue board in December 2014.
And it is with a sense of pride and delight that I have gratefully accepted Jeff’s and the beyondblue board of directors’ invitation to take over as chair.
Of course, this now means I am entering a new phase in my post prime ministerial life. Until now, I have been content to go about the things I am doing quietly, with limited media exposure.
Now that will change. I have deliberately embraced a chance to use my voice as a former prime minister to bring attention to a cause that affects millions of Australians and their families every day.
But I am intending to do this without stepping back into partisan politics. Yes, you will hear me on the importance of people talking freely and frankly about mental health concerns in an environment without stigma or discrimination. And yes, you will hear me on what the evidence is telling us are the best ways of tackling anxiety, depression and suicide. What you won’t hear from me is biased critiques on the mental health policies of political parties.
And I am most certainly not intending to fall for the one-last-question technique so beloved by journalists, the question that always starts, “while I’ve got you what is your comment on”, and then leads to the furious political debate of the day. To my friends in the media, don’t say you haven’t been warned!
I come to this role with beyondblue – along with many other great organisations – having already achieved so much in opening up the conversation about depression, anxiety and suicide prevention.
But for many the fear of stigma remains and help seems hard to find.
We know that around 50 per cent of those with depression and/or anxiety don’t get the support they need. In 2015 there were 3027 lives lost to suicide. That means that today, and every day, eight people will die by suicide and an average of 200 will attempt to take their own lives.
These tragic numbers are telling us that we have to keep fighting discrimination and find a way to better support those in need – our friends, families, work colleagues and community members – and those who love and care for them.
So for me as chair, for every member of the beyondblue board, for our fabulous staff and for the many millions of Australians who actively support our mission, there is much to do.
I will be a different kind of chair to Jeff Kennett. He has the unique and honoured status of being the founder. If it hadn’t been for Jeff’s vision and drive for more than a decade and a half, beyondblue wouldn’t be here at all.
Indeed, I couldn’t imitate Jeff even if I tried. We are obviously very different people, though very fond of each of other. But it is also now a very different time in the life of beyondblue.
Perhaps the best way to think about it is that Jeff built the boat and set the course. My role, with my board colleagues, will be to have my hands on the tiller as beyondblue holds that course and looks to a further horizon.
Please come on that journey with us.
Julia Gillard is the chair of beyondblue and a former prime minister.