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A focus on mental wellbeing

One in five Australians aged 16-85 experienced mental disorders in the previous 12 months. Wayne Debernardi sheds light on these concerning figures and explains his personal battles with mental illness.

A focus on mental wellbeing
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  • Contributed by Wayne Debernardi
  • August 23, 2019
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When the IPA, led by CEO Andrew Conway, conducted its nationwide small business roadshow in 2017 to help inform the development of the second edition of the Australian Small Business White Paper (published last year), a few new factors came to light.

The IPA undertook the same insight gathering mission in 2014, but factors that may have been lurking beneath the surface were not among the key issues identified for inclusion in the first edition of the white paper.  

At the time, an emerging issue for small business was cyber security, including the genuine concern of business disruption or destruction through ill-doing parties infiltrating their technology.

The more alarming concern, that only raised its head in the three-year period between roadshows, is mental health as a significant struggle for small business. In that period, we heard many stories of anxiety and depression from small business owners and practitioners, which mostly stemmed from running a small business.

Too many stories to be ignored.

Mental illness or ill-health is not new, but I would say that we now have a heightened awareness and its status is growing within our community.

Unfortunately, we often see news and advertising of the dangers of drug addiction and alcohol abuse on the streets and on television, and many of us quite rightfully or wrongfully shy away. We just don’t want to know.  

But what about the many cases where people suffering a mental illness self-medicate in order to ‘escape’?

Mental illness comes in many different guises: depression, anxiety, psychosis, substance abuse, gambling abuse, eating disorders, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder and the list goes on.  

But these are all illnesses and they need to be understood and treated. If I had diabetes, it would need to be treated; if I have depression, it would need to be treated. 

The most recent National Survey of Mental Health and Wellbeing, a community survey of 8,841 people aged 16-85 years of age, living in private dwellings across Australia, found that one in five (20 per cent) had a common mental illness (anxiety, depressive or substance use disorder) at some time during the previous 12 months (ABS 2007).  

Take the following statistics into consideration:

Type of mental illness




Anxiety disorders




Depressive and bipolar disorders




Substance use disorder




All common mental illnesses




If this was to be extrapolated out, it would equate to 3.2 million people.

While the figures above show a stronger lean toward females, bi-polar disorder affects an equal number of male and female sufferers.

Some years ago, my wife and I took a young female woman under our roof. She had been a school friend of our daughter and we could see her struggling; we just didn’t know what she was struggling with at that time.

Placing ourselves in the role of her carers, we quickly learned that we had taken on a significant responsibility as she was battling anorexia, depression, mood swings, as well as suicidal thoughts.  

We advised her to see a psychiatrist and I attended many sessions with her. Ultimately, we discovered and foiled her plan to commit suicide in our house; at which point we sought additional professional guidance and I forced her father to become involved.

That young woman is now 29 years of age. She is one of the lucky ones or perhaps better said, a survivor. The key for us was to get her the appropriate professional help that she required.

Of course, attempted suicide is sadly the end result for many sufferers and is a significant risk for people with depression. Of Australians aged 16-85 who have had a depressive disorder in the past 12 months, approximately 4 per cent attempt suicide (Johnston AK, Pirkis JE, Burgess PM. Suicidal thoughts and behaviours among Australian adults: findings from the 2007 National Survey of Mental Health and Wellbeing. Australian & New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry 2009; 43; 635-43).

Ending stigma

As I have already emphasised, mental illnesses need to be treated just as any other illnesses are.  

Unfortunately, there is still significant stigma placed on people with mental illness. Some of this stems from the fear of the unknown, the failure to recognise and relate to people with mental health issues or symptoms, while some is spurred by pure ignorance.

From a societal perspective, we all need to do our part in breaking down the walls, and removing stigma is a vital step in this direction.  

Think again of the one in five statistic. It could be your work colleague, a member of your family, a loved one or a neighbour.  

It could be you. And remember, mental health and mental ill-health have no timeline.

Who lives amongst us?

It is not your job to identify someone who may be affected by a mental illness. But being aware that a person may need help, and offering them that help, is something that all of us should consider.

I know that many may see this as a harsh call and that it may not be for everyone, but I ask you to remember the 20 per cent factor.  

We could be talking about someone you love. Keep in mind that such conditions have no timeline. They may appear over the course of a lifetime, much like small cracks in a wall that get bigger and eventually bring the wall to the brink of collapse.

Some people are born with problems, some experience a traumatic event at a stage in their lives, while others may suffer from everyday life inducing anxiety and depression.

For those who know me, what if I said I was one of the five, one of the 20 per cent?  Would you treat me any differently? Or, more importantly, would you ask me if I was OK?  


All of us have probably participated in the annual R U OK? Day. The IPA has been very active in its support.  

But let me ask you this, why do we wait for an annual event to ask someone if they are OK? 

Why do we treat this day like mothers’ and fathers’ and family day? Or my personal favourite ‘please let me sleep-in day’ (just made that up but please email your support – numbers make a difference)?

Don’t get me wrong, I am all for R U OK? Day, and consider it to be a vital awareness builder and please let’s keep it going.

In fact, the story behind R U OK? here in Australia is quite heart-warming.

In 1995, Barry Larkin was far from OK. His suicide left loved ones with endless questions. In 2009, his son Gavin championed a cause to honour his late father by asking just one question in the hope of protecting other families from such circumstances. 

I doubt there are many Australians out there that have not been touched by the R U OK? movement.

The question remains, are we checking each other to see if we are OK? If we see signals of concern, what are we doing?

IPA’s focus on mental health and wellbeing

Following the publication of the second edition of the Australian Small Business White Paper, the IPA has continued its research through the IPA Deakin SME Research Centre to focus on the subject of mental wellness.

The IPA takes a holistic approach to policy development, which means looking beyond economic and financial considerations; it includes all aspect of small business life. The IPA research will continue and its efforts in this space go beyond the white paper.

In late 2018, Andrew Conway played a pivotal participating role in a small business mental health roundtable initiated through Australia’s Prime Minister. This has led to a number of working groups that the IPA is currently actively involved with.

In May of this year, the IPA provided managers with increased insight with a training and accreditation program on mental health first aid. I was fortunate to participate and later to be accredited. That’s not brass-badge rubbing; it’s recognition that the training was extremely useful.

I would encourage all members and small business clients to increase their awareness in this space. The training is provided by Mental Health First Aid Australia.

In the past, we may have taken up first aid training opportunities including CPR. Mental Health First Aid training is just another aim to equip us to help another human being.

I must reiterate that getting people the right professional assistance is paramount and this includes starting with a trusted GP. I would highly recommend those interested contact Mental Health First Aid Australia.

We, as an organisation, continue to be concerned with the mental health of the small business community. We recognise the vital role our members play in this space. We will continue to communicate on this subject, knowing that accountants, as a point guard on trust, may be serving clients that are experiencing difficulties in this area.

To close, and in case you were wondering and for all that know me well, I am one of the 20 per cent. 

Wayne Debernardi, general manager, media and strategic communications, IPA 

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