ADJOURNMENT;Child Abuse – 16 Nov 2010

Tonight I rise to speak on the Cunningham Dax Collection, which deals with art, creativity and education in mental health. But, before I start that, I want to give a few facts about child abuse. I have spoken about this before in this place on many occasions. All the statistics are very scary. One in four girls are abused before the age of 18. One in six boys are abused before the age of 18. One in five children are solicited while on the internet. Nearly 70 per cent of all reported sexual assaults occur to children under the age of 17. Over 30 per cent of victims never disclose their experience to anyone. Almost 80 per cent initially deny abuse or are tentative in disclosing. Of those who do disclose, approximately 75 per cent disclose accidentally. Of those who do disclose, more than 20 per cent eventually recant, even though the abuse occurred.

According to the National Association for the Prevention of Child Abuse and Neglect, NAPCAN, a child is abused every two hours in Australia. The reason I stand here tonight is linked to those really awful statistics. The Cunningham Dax Collection bears the name of its founder, the late psychiatrist Dr Eric Cunningham Dax. Dr Dax was the director of this art collection until 1995. This collection of about 15,000 artworks has been collected since the early 1940s. I will speak more about that later.

As I said, Dr Dax was the director of this collection until 1995. He continued to work with the collection, which as I said was named in his honour, until he finally retired at the age of 94. That was his third retirement; in fact, he had retired three times. He passed away in February 2008 at the age of 99, so in his 100th year.

This collection operates under the auspices of the Mental Health Research Institute, MHRI, which is an internationally renowned, non-profit research institute located in Parkville in Victoria. As I said, the collection consists of over 15,000 works in a variety of mediums, including paintings, ceramics and textiles.

The Cunningham Dax Collection’s mission is to promote mental health and wellbeing by fostering a greater understanding of the mind, mental illness and trauma through art and creativity. Its vision is to become a centre of excellence in the exploration of creativity and mental illness by providing local and international leadership in the study of human psychological experience through art and other related creative endeavours.

I have had an opportunity to view part of the collection in its home environment in Victoria. Tonight I want to talk about the fact that some of this collection is currently on display in the public area of Parliament House. It was my absolute honour and privilege to be asked by the Cunningham Dax Collection to launch this exhibition yesterday. This collection is of enormous personal interest to me because my first full-time job was working for Dr Eric Cunningham Dax. Dr Dax moved to Tasmania in 1969 after being invited by the Tasmanian government to assist in the development of community mental health services and other health and welfare services. He established a new psychiatric research centre to focus on social aspects of health and, amongst a number of other areas that he worked on, he undertook research into the complex difficulties of multiproblem families.

I was very privileged to work for Dr Dax. When I left college at the age of 18 he was my first full-time employer. I do not think you could ask for a better employer. We worked in a building called the Old Vicarage in New Town, one of the suburbs of Hobart. One of my key jobs was to research where Huntington’s chorea had initially come into Tasmania. Long before graphing family trees was the way to go and long before computers—which ages me somewhat—it was my job to do this research through births, deaths and marriages, in the prison system and in a number of other areas. Just before I started working for Dr Dax, the Tasman Bridge collapsed, which I am sure most people would have heard about, and Dr Dax undertook some study into differences in crime and the attitude of criminals as a result of that bridge collapse. Criminals did not have much opportunity to move their goods from the eastern shore to the western shore without the bridge, so it did actually change the pattern of criminal behaviour in Tasmania. As an 18-year-old fresh out of college I was extremely privileged to be able to work with somebody who was not only working on those types of issues but was such a great man and a great boss.

One of the other things I did while working for Dr Dax was to help him catalogue artwork. He would run an art therapy session in the sunroom of the Old Vicarage for patients who would come up from John Edis Hospital. As part of my job, he would sit with me the next day and talk me through what the patients had told him about their artwork and I would type that up. Some of that artwork is in the 15,000-piece collection that is now housed in Victoria. So it was an absolute privilege for me to be able to launch the exhibition upstairs here in the public area of Parliament House.

It always surprised me that Dr Dax, despite his incredible achievements—and I will list some of them now—was a really humble man. He treated everybody with dignity and respect. I was the junior administrative assistant and research person but he treated me with great respect and dignity, something I know a lot of employers do not always do with the younger members of their staff. He has always stayed in my heart and I have been involved with and interested in the Cunningham Dax Collection for a number of years now, so I wanted to point out to people the significance to me of having worked for him.

On reflection, it is pretty amazing to see how our understanding of mental health today has been shaped by the work of someone such as Eric Cunningham Dax, who was a pioneering figure. He oversaw many forward-thinking reforms in mental health when he was appointed chairman of Victoria’s then Mental Hygiene Authority in 1952—reforms that we now take for granted in the modern treatment and care of people with mental illness. In the first half of the 20th century, the emphasis in psychiatric care was on custodial care rather than treatment. Patients would be locked up in large, dirty, crowded wards. Dr Dax’s approach to mental health reform was driven by a philosophy that every person with mental illness was to be respected as an individual and treated with dignity. He understood the need to respect the personal feelings and autonomy of people with mental illness and realised that good mental health care required the contribution of other disciplines and the support of the general community. He was also among the first to appreciate the detrimental effects of stigmatising mental illness. He believed that such stigmatism was driven by fear and ignorance.

Dr Dax’s reforms were simple yet transformative. For example, he insisted that each patient in any mental health facility was entitled to a bed and a cupboard of their own—and he personally designed those cupboards. He pioneered community treatment, the division of mental health care into different services such as child psychiatric services, psychogeriatric services and services for people with alcohol dependency, and modern treatments such as antipsychotic and antidepressant medications. Dr Dax was instrumental in the development of the mental health nursing profession and closely involved in setting up Australia’s first telephone counselling service. Working with Dr Dax instilled in me a lifelong interest in mental health issues.

Throughout the course of the 20th century there was an increasing interest in the use of artwork for therapeutic and diagnostic purposes in the field of mental health. This coincided with a growing appreciation of the artistic merit of these works by both artists and the community as a whole. In 1946, while superintendent of Netherne Hospital, a progressive psychiatric facility in England, Dr Dax introduced clinical art programs as a treatment component in mainstream psychiatry. The significance of this initiative cannot be underestimated. It was the first time art had been used as part of mainstream psychiatric treatment. His research into the role of art in psychiatric treatment led him to convince the British National Health Service to employ artists in hospitals. These studies were published in 1950 in the book titled Experimental Studies in Psychiatric Art. On moving to Australia in 1952, Dr Dax continued his work using art as a way of understanding the experiences of his patients. He developed art programs that guided patients to produce artworks that he considered ‘windows of the mind’. Originally Dr Dax collected some of these creative works to assist in educating mental health staff. He later realised that the same strategy would work when educating the broader public about mental health.

This year an exhibition entitled Avoiding the Void was shown at the Cunningham Dax Collection, and Youth, Interrupted is on show until 6 November. Another exhibition, Beyond the Three Trees, has already been shown in Orange, New South Wales, and will be shown in Wodonga, in Victoria, between 10 October and 7 November. The Cunningham Dax Collection is currently holding an exhibition of some of its works at Parliament House, and it is on display until 9 December. Members of the public can access it, and I encourage all members and senators to go and have a look at it. This exhibition is entitled Healing Childhood Trauma, and it will give people, including members of both houses and their staff, the opportunity to view just a small part of the work that makes up the collection.

It was my absolute pleasure to launch this exhibition on Monday this week, and I would like to thank all those who attended. A lot of people put a lot of work into getting this exhibition organised, including Hassanah Briedis, project officer with the Cunningham Dax Collection; Gillian Nikakis, convenor of the child trauma collection and the acquisition committee of the Cunningham Dax Collection; Olya Booyar, the President of the National Association for the Prevention of Child Abuse and Neglect; and NAPCAN’s new Chief Executive Officer, Richard Cooke. It was also an absolute pleasure to meet two members of Dr Dax’s family, his daughter Liz Dax and his grandson, Ned. I hope that senators, members and their staff as well as other visitors to Parliament House will take the time to observe the collection and to learn something about the artists and their experiences.

We all express ourselves differently. Some people like to talk about their feelings while others, for whatever reason, find it hard to express themselves, especially when it comes to the more complex and in-depth emotional issues. Some people choose to write their feelings down in a diary while others choose to express themselves through artwork. The Cunningham Dax Collection is giving people who choose to express themselves through art the opportunity to share their work produced via the mediums of painting, ceramics and textiles. It also gives others the opportunity to learn from that work.

Leah, one of the artists exhibiting in Youth, Interrupted, said:

Art has helped not only me but also others around me to understand what’s going on inside my head and in my heart.

Another artist, Andrew, said:

It was a cathartic experience that I will always value and remember … At this time I lost a large group of friends because they couldn’t understand what I was going through.

I certainly couldn’t communicate what was going on personally, which made me even more isolated and estranged from the world around me. The way I could convey these hurtful feelings was through my art.

Experiencing trauma and/or mental illness is indeed tough not only for the individual but also for their family and friends. For people living in or visiting Melbourne, the Cunningham Dax Collection is certainly worth a visit. I encourage everyone to view these important works of art.

I thank all those people who have allowed their artwork to be part of the collection. It is a very brave decision to express your thoughts and feelings and then put it on public display, and that is playing an important role in educating others about mental health. I thank everyone involved in setting up the event: Hassanah Briedis and Gillian Nikakis from the Cunningham Dax Collection and Alva Maguire from Art Services at Parliament House. I also thank Bryan Wilson for organising the exhibition site.

It has been a real team effort, and it has taken one of my staff members, Brooke, 12 months of work to help set it up. Thank you very much, Brooke—you have worked very hard coordinating everybody to get it together and make sure that the exhibition is of an exceptionally high standard. I am really pleased that we could come together to acknowledge the work of Dr Eric Cunningham Dax. He left us with a remarkable legacy of his professional life, and I know that this legacy has had and will continue to have a profound impact on many people’s lives, not least my own.