RENATE KAMENER ORATION
The Triumph of Humanity Through Great Transitions of our Lives
University of Melbourne
Sunday, September 15, 2019
I acknowledge the traditional owners of the land on which we meet, the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin Nation, and, in a spirit of reconciliation, pay my respect to their Elders – past and present.
It is a privilege to be able to give this lecture in memory of Renate Kamener.
I would like to acknowledge the Kamener family members who are here with us this afternoon.
Renate’s sons Larry and Martin, her daughters-in-law Steph and Petra, and her grandsons Joshua, Mishka and Araso.
I did not have the privilege of meeting Renate or her husband Bob. But fortunately, Marty and Larry’s reminiscences have given me a wonderful sense of a woman who inspired so much enduring love.
The Renate Kamener Scholarship itself is testament to the power of her ability to bring people together and celebrate our shared humanity.
And I would like to congratulate Tannah Thorne on being the recipient of this very special award for 2019.
Renate Kamener lived through some of the greatest transitions of modern times.
Her life was shaped, directly and indirectly, by towering global events:
Nazi evil perpetrated on a scale that was beyond human imagination until it happened;
the decades of struggle to end Apartheid;
scientific advances from The Pill to landing on the moon and creating cyberspace;
and revolutions in our understanding about what it means to extend rights, freedoms, dignity and respect to all.
I am told Renate chose to respond to these transitions in a very personal way: by staying true to herself and to the ethics and values instilled by her parents.
Although she was buffeted by these great upheavals – forced to flee across the world, to make and remake her home, to weather her own internal battles – Renate was determined to be a force for good in the lives of those she could see, touch and teach.
Her answer to injustice and calamity was to extend her humanity and compassion to all comers… (pause)
… often by inviting them around to the family home in Kew.
Usually on Sunday mornings, as Larry tells it, when he would be wandering through the house, barely awake, still in his pyjamas and looking for a bowl of Cornflakes . . .
. . . there would be people everywhere.
Some of those who came were lost or had problems, others came with inspirational ideas, can-do attitudes or passions for innumerable causes.
As Larry recalls:
“It was always personal with Mum. It was all about people.
“She wasn’t big ‘p’ political. It was all about kitchen table politics.”
Renate was born on 8th June, 1933, in Breslau the largest German city east of Berlin.
Breslau – or Wroclaw as it was historically and is again named – is a city at the crossroads of Central Europe that itself bears the scars of many great transitions.
It was originally part of Czech territory, then Poland, claimed by the Tartars, passed to Bohemia, Prussia, Austria and then Germany.
It was the last town seized by the Soviets from the Nazis in 1945 and was finally returned to Poland at the end of World War II.
Renate’s loving and cultured parents – Rudi, a lawyer and Thea, a secretary – were overjoyed by the arrival of their baby daughter, but worried about her future.
1933 was the worst year of The Great Depression. It was also the year Hitler was elected Chancellor of Germany.
Baby Renate was born at the most dangerous time in the most dangerous place to be Jewish.
In 1936 a German referendum – from which Jewish and Polish people were excluded – voted to establish a single party state and approved the invasion of the Rhineland.
At the same time, in South Africa the first of a series of laws was passed to diminish the voting rights of non-Whites in Cape Province.
And faraway in the Torres Strait Islands, a young mother died five days after giving birth to her fourth child. In accordance with Murray Islander custom the baby was adopted by his maternal uncle and took the family name. We would come to know him as Edward Mabo.
Meanwhile, Rudi and Thea had had enough of Breslau.
Renate was three when the family joined Rudi’s brother in Johannesburg.
By 1938 Renate’s grandparents had also moved to South Africa, ensuring all the immediate family survived the Holocaust.
Renate remembered a comfortable, privileged and very cultured childhood; horse riding with her father, opera and music.
She did well at school and went on to get a BA in Humanities and, in 1950, she met a young medical student named Bob Kamener.
Renate became a teacher, and she and Bob became part of a small group working against the apartheid system in South Africa.
They bravely sold papers in townships they were not supposed to enter and Bob illegally treated people of colour in Whites Only hospitals.
They married in 1956 with Larry born three years later and Marty in 1963.
Thirty years on – in 1996 – their sons would organise a wedding anniversary surprise with a compilation of interviews with friends and contacts from those days. The production was titled Apartheid: Bob and Renate’s role in its downfall.
But through the 1950s and ‘60s the prospects of reform in South Africa were dim, and Bob and Renate were forced to concede it was not the kind of place they wanted to raise their children.
So, in 1965 they became part of the migration wave that had brought two million people to Australia since the end of World War II.
Just a few months later, in 1966, my family – my parents John and Moira, my sister Alison and I – joined that wave, emigrating from Wales and settling in Adelaide. Originally, my parents had been bound for Melbourne. They changed their minds on board the ship that brought us to Australia as a result of meeting amongst the passengers a Welsh couple, who lived in Adelaide.
My parents understandably thought to themselves that given they only knew two people in Australia – the Welsh couple who were to become our adopted Aunty Glad and Uncle Frank – they might as well go and live in the same city as them.
Larry and Marty: but for that late revision to our destination, we could have grown up neighbours.
Though our parents have very different backgrounds and experiences, I have no doubt Marty and Larry, like Alison and I, benefited hugely from the family decision to build new lives in Australia.
Renate eventually went to teach at Swinburne Technical School and Bob commenced being a general practitioner.
By 1968 Renate’s family was settled in Kew. It was a full house. Packed to the rafters with friends, neighbours and visitors, meetings being held. There was talk of music and poetry.
And Larry roaming around in his PJs on Sunday mornings.
I certainly know what it is like as a child to wake up on a Sunday morning and decide it’s time for a bowl of cereal. In my home, you needed to get up very early to have any hope of sharing it with my father, who was quite likely to be on shift.
When my family moved from Wales, Dad took up training as a psychiatric nurse.
He worked at Adelaide’s Glenside Hospital which first took in mentally ill patients in 1846.
It was a career he absolutely loved and he pursued it for more than two decades.
I literally grew up hearing about Dad’s work at Glenside, a facility in those days that accommodated everyone from the acutely unwell to young children with Down syndrome.
As a result, mental health was never a taboo subject in our house. That was just our life.
Which, I now realise, was unusual. People didn’t really talk about mental health back then.
By the time Beyond Blue was launched in the year 2000, depression was still misunderstood, and relatively few realised that anxiety was a diagnosable condition.
Even today fewer than half those with a mental health condition seek support from a professional or talk to their GP about it.
At Beyond Blue we are determined to change that by continuing to improve mental health literacy, reduce stigma and discrimination, encourage help seeking and advocate for system reform so the right support is there for everyone, at the right time, whether they are affected by depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, bipolar or thoughts of suicide.
We start by trying to clear up confusion about what we mean by the words ‘mental health’.
The World Health Organization defines mental health as:
‘A state of wellbeing in which every individual realises his or her own potential, can cope with normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to contribute to the community.’
Used in this way: mental health is a positive.
But often people use the term as shorthand for mental health conditions such as depression or anxiety.
These days at Beyond Blue we are more likely to describe mental health as a continuum, rather than labelling people with diagnoses.
Each of us can slide up and down that continuum over the course of our lives because our mental health is not static … it changes constantly.
Think of it as a traffic light indicator. When we are well, we are in the green. We’re connected, thriving and productive.
But our mental health can ebb and flow in response to external stressors. These could be significant personal transitions such as relationship breakdowns or bereavements. Or perhaps work-related difficulties, financial or housing problems.
When such things happen, we can move along that traffic light scale to amber as we experience mild to moderate anxiety or depression.
By now we can be behaving irritably, have lapses in concentration or anger and move toward negative self-talk. We can become withdrawn, over-tired and work or school performances are affected. We can start using alcohol or other substances to mask the pain.
If we fail to recognise or address these issues the symptoms can become more acute.
By the time we reach the red we are in a mental health crisis and possibly having suicidal thoughts. We need expert care and support.
But it really doesn’t have to be like this.
We can act and get help before we head into the red.
By educating people – from the start of life – about how to look after their mental health and wellbeing, conditions such as depression and anxiety can be prevented, or their impact significantly reduced.
Intervening early when conditions do emerge will help people recover and stay well.
Prevention, early intervention and the right support at the right time are vital.
This message matters to all of us because no matter our age, income, religion, race or gender, none of us is immune when it comes to mental health issues.
One in five working Australians are affected in a 12-month period.
One million adults are living with depression in Australia today.
Two million with an anxiety condition.
In fact, nearly one in two of us will experience a mental health condition over the course of our lives.
If we are not personally affected, then we will know somebody who is. It could be our partner, a friend, colleague or child.
Renate wasn’t immune.
She first experienced depression in her late 40s.
Larry had moved to London in 1978. Bob was working long hours in his practice.
The supportive and social culture she had created at Swinburne was disrupted by changes in personnel. She stopped teaching and went to work at a teachers’ union.
Marty became aware of Renate’s symptoms in the early 1980s.
As anyone who has supported a loved one through a severe episode of depression or anxiety will know, these can be difficult days.
Marty remembers the episodes, which could last six months, as being “really tough”.
Today, is the first time Marty and Larry have publicly shared Renate’s experience of depression.
I thank them for that. The more who join this conversation, the easier it becomes.
As we have seen in recent years with premiers, ministers, business leaders, sporting champions, military heroes and everyday people across all generations stepping forward to talk publicly about their mental health, including suicidal thoughts and attempts.
Talking about suicide – openly, publicly, even privately – is relatively new for most of us.
When I was growing up in Adelaide in the 1960s and ‘70s, people didn’t talk about such things.
If they did it was in whispers. It was something our society didn’t have the words for. The shared impulse was to keep it hidden, covered up.
Yet the World Health Organization estimates that each year 800,000 people die by suicide, and 4.5 million people have their lives deeply affected.
In Australia in 2017 we lost 3127 (three thousand one hundred and twenty-seven) sons, daughters, dads, mums, brothers, sisters, friends and colleagues.
That represents more than eight deaths a day, 6 of whom will likely be men.
Every day around Australia 200 people will feel so desperate they attempt suicide.
Each of those actions represents immense suffering, not just for the individuals who took their own lives, but for all who live on with that loss.
Today, I want to highlight the particular circumstance of our First Nations people who are twice as likely to die by suicide than their non-Indigenous peers.
Since 2012, suicide has been the leading cause of death among young Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people aged 15 to 34: three times that of non-Indigenous Australians.
The suicide rate for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander teenagers aged 15 to 19 of both genders is around four times that of their non-Indigenous peers.
These numbers are shocking and they remind us what is at stake.
Great damage has been done to our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities through two centuries of discrimination and dislocation.
Grief, trauma and loss have assisted in weakening the power of culture to support social and emotional wellbeing.
Compounding the pain which arises from that separation from culture, are issues like the inter-generational trauma of the Stolen Generations and their descendants, the need for secure housing, a fair go inside and outside the justice system, access to education and job opportunities, and tackling racism.
Addressing all this is complex and cannot be done in the absence of a commitment to reconciliation and partnership. As many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people continue to remind us, Indigenous policies must be led by Indigenous communities.
Systemic reforms to improve social and emotional wellbeing must be culturally informed, co-designed and locally led.
The uniqueness and significance of family and kinship must be understood.
Each of us needs to educate ourselves and we must commit, to support, to ally with Indigenous Australia.
This includes addressing the issue of constitutional recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.
Every eligible voter will have a part to play in the healing and truth-telling that must take place so that we can recognise, reconcile and recover.
Just as everyone has a role to play in tackling Australia’s suicide rate.
Individually our part might seem small, but we can achieve amazing things when we unite.
When we reach out to each other with empathy and understanding. Something that came so naturally to Renate.
TALKING ABOUT SUICIDE
In February 2018, Beyond Blue released research into the likelihood people would ask about and support someone they thought was at risk of suicide.
This was rigorous and scientific but also humanistic research.
The research team spoke to experts, studied existing literature and surveyed over 3,000 Australians from all walks of life.
Including community members, people exposed to suicide and people who have attempted suicide.
Importantly, people who had experienced suicidal thoughts or attempted suicide were asked how they wanted others to support them.
What they wanted was simple: having someone listen to them with empathy and to show care and support.
The research confirmed a deep community concern about suicide, and that most people want to do more to prevent it happening in their communities, but don’t know how.
They are unsure where to start, the words to use, or even whether they should say anything at all.
Some worry that asking somebody if they are having suicidal thoughts might plant the idea in their head, even encourage it.
The research tells us this is not the case.
But it’s natural for people to be concerned about saying or doing the right thing – or the wrong thing.
So, learning to identify the sometimes subtle warning signs of suicide and raising your concerns could help change another person’s life – and you don’t have to be an expert to do this.
Non-verbal indicators can include social withdrawal, a persistent drop in mood, disinterest in maintaining personal hygiene or appearance, rapid weight changes. The person could be constantly distracted, having trouble sleeping, abusing alcohol or drugs.
There might be uncharacteristically reckless behaviour or the giving away of sentimental or expensive possessions.
Indirect verbal expressions could include hopelessness, failing to see a future, believing they are a burden to others, saying they feel worthless or alone. Sometimes people will talk directly about wanting to die.
If you notice a family member, friend or colleague displaying a combination of these factors, you should take the signs seriously.
And there are simple, safe steps that friends, family and workmates can take to support someone at risk.
Ask the person how they are feeling and explain changes you have noticed in their behaviour;
Listen without judgement and without trying to advise them how to ‘fix’ their situation;
Ask direct questions about whether the person is thinking of suicide and has a plan;
Show support and suggest they seek help perhaps from a GP or a mental health professional.
These could be the first steps towards helping someone reconnect with living and get them the support they need.
To get this evidence based message to the community, Beyond Blue in partnership with other national mental health organisations launched the
Hashtag YouCanTalk social media campaign. It aims to debunk the myths, build up the confidence of the community, and equip individuals to have safe and helpful conversations about suicide and provide empathetic and practical support.
The first phase of the campaign went live in July last year and a second phase is expected in December.
So, keep your social media notifications switched on and look out for
#youcantalk later this year.
But, before I go further, may I take a moment to acknowledge those with us today who may themselves be living with a mental health condition, or who have found this a difficult conversation.
If so, I would urge you to please reach out for support from someone you trust or contact beyondblue.org.au.
Addressing issues as pervasive and complicated as mental ill health and suicide requires community involvement.
But it also needs government leadership.
I have not met one federal, state or territory parliamentarian who is not genuinely concerned the state of the nation’s mental health and our suicide rate.
Here in Victoria, Premier Daniel Andrews has said he will accept all findings of the Royal Commission into the Victorian Mental Health System which is due to file an interim report by November.
And nationally the Productivity Commission’s sweeping inquiry into mental health is underway.
It has a mandate to examine every corner, at every level of government, and across all the places and factors that support our mental health, resilience, connectedness and opportunities that allow us to live contributing lives.
At his recent National Press Club address, Health Minister Greg Hunt outlined his blueprint for mental health system change as part of the Federal Government’s long-term National Health Plan.
The blueprint includes a strategy for children’s mental health, a major new Australian Bureau of Statistics survey into the nation’s mental health and wellbeing and a push to drive down suicide rates.
I was particularly pleased to hear Minister Hunt’s commitment to children’s mental health and wellbeing.
Because we know that half all mental health issues emerge by age 14 and that the first 1000 days of a child’s life have a profound impact on their life-long mental health and wellbeing.
In fact, around one in seven children aged from four to 17 will experience a mental health condition in a year. That is over half a million kids.
And the impact can cascade into poor learning outcomes, which in turn can create a lifelong disadvantage.
As an educational advocate and teacher this is an issue, I am sure, would have been important to Renate.
We know that children with persistent emotional or behavioural problems fall a year behind their peers in numeracy between Years 3 and 7, with similar trends in reading.
They are twice as likely to be disengaged with school by Year 7 and more likely to leave formal education before Year 12.
In 2018, a Beyond Blue survey of educators found that 97 per cent rate mental health issues among their major health concerns for children and young people – placing it ahead of obesity and substance abuse.
And while 40 per cent of parents say their child’s mental health issues were first noticed in school, almost half of educators surveyed said they lacked the skills to address students’ mental health needs.
It is these links between poor mental health and social and educational outcomes that lay the foundations for Beyond Blue’s development of Be You.
This is a Commonwealth-funded national initiative that aims to strengthen mental health literacy, resilience, self-care and help-seeking within Australia’s school communities and early childhood settings.
In less than a year since its November launch more than 79,000 educators and 8,550 early learning services and schools have registered for Be You. Just last week a teacher came up to me in Canberra and said the Be You resources where fantastic and she used them all the time.
Our aim is that all Australian schools and early learning services will sign up and have that same degree of enthusiasm.
Be You is an investment in everyone’s future … because childhood experiences shape the adults we become.
In many cases, children who have good mental health – and the resilience to bounce back from early adversity – can carry it with them through adulthood and pass it on to the generations that follow.
But those exposed to ongoing disadvantage or trauma in the early years might not be so lucky.
Sadly, for thousands of children their reality includes poverty, abuse, family conflict or violence, inadequate housing and homelessness, or neglect.
They may live with others who experience poor mental or physical health, or perhaps drug and alcohol issues.
Long-term exposure to such adversities can significantly increase the likelihood of children developing mental health conditions that will have life-long social, academic and employment implications.
In fact, up to one third of depression, anxiety and self-harm conditions experienced by adults are related to childhood maltreatment.
We need look no further than the testimonies of victims who so bravely gave evidence to the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.
What those stories tell us is that it is not good enough to be a sympathetic bystander, a silent witness, to abuse, inequity and disadvantage.
We must work to prevent future failings so that generations to come are not trapped in the same cycle of trauma and disadvantage.
Preventing the circumstances that contribute to mental health issues in young people – or mitigating their impact – must continue to be a national priority.
And when prevention is not possible, early intervention is essential.
Whole-of-government, whole-of-sector, whole-of-community, every-one of us has a role to play.
If only we had a nation of Renates.
As her friend June Factor put it: “Renate was among those tireless, unsung people who create a community.”
In his Renate Kamener Oration in 2011, Gareth Evans noted: “Renate herself certainly did make a difference to many lives, in her teaching and in her deep engagement with so many community organisations committed to peace and reconciliation and fundamental human rights.
Why is it that some individuals always choose to help others?
Why is it that people like Renate Kamener unwaveringly choose humanity, compassion and love over other, possibly, easier paths?
Perhaps it was her personal experience of racism, bigotry and discrimination.
Perhaps it was witnessing the impact of injustice and poverty across three continents.
Perhaps it is because moral and ethical choices are inseparable from our sense of who we are. Our true selves.
Perhaps Renate Kamener had no choice. It’s just who she was.
And for Renate being her loving, kind, inspiring self we are truly grateful. It has been a privilege to speak and honour her today.