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HER Centre Australia takes the lead in women’s mental health

Mental Health

Women’s mental illness will get the recognition it deserves at HER Centre Australia, the nation’s most innovative centre that integrates health services, education and research in women’s mental health.

HER Centre conducts research, treats women and improves awareness about women’s mental health issues occurring at all ages. It will be officially launched tonight (20 October) at a free public lecture at the Melbourne Town Hall. 

The lecture will feature HER Centre Director and Head of the Department of Psychiatry at Monash University, Professor Jayashri Kulkarni AM, HER Centre Deputy Director Associate Professor Caroline Gurvich, mother of three with lived experience of mental illness Mariska Meldrum, and media presenter Jo Stanley.

They will share key insights on the challenges that women face at all life stages and how the centre’s tailored interventions and treatments will transform the quality of life of all women experiencing mental illness.

HER Centre Australia follows more than 30 years of Monash University-led research through the Alfred Hospital’s Monash Alfred Psychiatry research centre (MAPrc), which also drove the opening of Cabrini Women’s Mental Health, Australia’s first private, women’s only mental health hospital.

Professor Kulkarni said for too long women’s mental health problems had been underdiagnosed and, in some cases, unrecognised. Nor had they been approached in a sustained or coordinated manner. She said the pandemic had exacerbated these issues for many women.

“Whether it’s debilitating periods or depression during menopause, too many women have been told to grin and bear it as those crushing emotions are ‘simply nature taking its course’,” she said. “What we now know is, and science has told us, that many women of all ages are living with mental illnesses that may be related to female hormones and/or other unique parts of their biology.

“A woman can experience pre-menstrual or menopause-related depression that is as serious as any other type of depression. Yet it can be easily written off as part of a ‘normal’ hormonal cycle. At its worst, such conditions can lead to serious mental illness or even suicide, without the true cause being identified. This is a national – and international – tragedy.”

HER Centre will offer a revolutionary approach to women’s mental health through a model encompassing health, education, research and public advocacy. Its health professionals and researchers will develop world-first gender-tailored treatments and interventions that will be translated quickly due to trials involving women treated at its clinics. 

Among other things, researchers in HER Centre are working on hormone-based treatments for women with menopausal depression. Clinical trials are also underway that are treating women with new forms of oestrogen, while educating health professionals about the need for them and their worth.

“Despite this, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5-TR) still has no definitive condition called menopausal depression,” Professor Kulkarni said. “There is very poor understanding of this illness, which often gets diagnosed as bipolar disorder. We also need to better understand pre and antenatal depression, which affects many women. HER Centre Australia is committed to being a leader in women’s mental health.” 

Women experience nearly twice as much depression as men, four times as much anxiety and 12 times the rate of eating disorders. Their mental illness involves a complex interaction of biological, psychological, and social factors. This means that the causes of, and best treatments for, conditions such as depression, anxiety, trauma disorders, addictions, and self-harm are different to men’s*.

Environmental factors that impact many women and can contribute to mental ill health include experiencing violence, power imbalance, lower wages, and negative cultural expectations.

HER Centre will cover a range of conditions affecting women, including menopause and menstrual cycle related mood disordersbipolar disorder, body dysmorphic disorder, complex post traumatic stress disorder, eating disorders, family violence, depression, postpartum depression, and schizophrenia/psychosis.

It will be at the forefront of new treatments such as cannabis oil, if they are proven to be effective. It will also offer courses for health professionals, such as psychiatrists and GPs, to help them better understand the likes of period and menopause depression.

Professor Kulkarni said to understand mental illness we must understand neurobiology – the way nervous system cells are organised into functional circuits that process information and mediate behaviour.

“If something goes wrong with these circuits, whether it’s caused by genetic, hormonal, environmental or a combination of factors, mental illness can result,” she said. “For this reason, we need to focus on the physiology of the brain as well as psychological and environmental factors. We call this a biopsychosocial model – one that considers a range of factors.”HER Centre Australia, which stands for Health, Education and Research, will be launched tonight (20 October) from 5.30pm-8.15p at a free Public Lecture at the Melbourne Town Hall featuring Professor Kulkarni, Associate Professor Gurvich, a clinical neuropsychologist and Head of the Cognition and Hormones Group, and radio and TV presenter Jo Stanley.

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