15 December 2023

The National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) is investing $7.8 million for research into developing effective resources, evidence-based treatments and patient-centred models of care to improve mental health in Australia.

This research makes up 3 of 216 diverse research projects receiving funding under the NHMRC’s largest scheme — Investigator Grants

Professor Patrick McGorry from the University of Melbourne will receive $2 million in funding to support the development of novel treatments that address mental health among young people.

The mental health of Australia’s youth is declining. It was reported in 2022 that almost 2 in 5 (39.6%) young Australians aged 16–24 years had a mental health condition, naming mental health conditions and associated repercussions as the top health burden for those within this age bracket.

Professor McGorry’s breakthrough program is aimed at developing new treatments for young people in the earliest stage of psychotic illness, seeking to further the science around ‘precision psychiatry’. This research will turn the traditional research approach on its head, working backwards from individuals who respond to specific treatments to understand exactly why they have improved.

A team led by Professor Tracey Wade from Flinders University will receive nearly $3 million to develop an online program to address the gap in effective mental health treatment, and to develop interventions to decrease disordered eating among Australian youth.

Eating disorders are complex mental illnesses with significant physical and mental health impacts, high mortality rates and low rates of detection.

More than one million Australians are estimated to be experiencing an eating disorder in any given year, and less than a quarter are receiving treatment or support. Eating disorders can be experienced by anyone and at all stages of life, yet they remain most prevalent among Australia’s youth with the average onset for eating disorders between the ages of 12 and 25 years.

Professor Wade’s research will address this gap through the development and testing of online, single session interventions to determine what works to decrease disordered eating among young Australians.

Professor Matthew Spittal from the University of Melbourne will receive nearly $2.9 million in funding to develop and implement a real-time suicide and self-harm cluster monitoring system.

Suicide clusters are defined as a greater than expected number of suicides, or suicide attempts that occur in a close proximity— either geographically or socially.

Professor Spittal and his team’s system will provide real-time outcomes and monthly reporting about clusters which will be sent directly to coroners and health departments, so they can initiate an evidence-informed response in the community.

This funding is part of $379 million awarded through the NHMRC Investigator Grant scheme.

The Investigator Grant scheme is NHMRC’s largest funding scheme and a major investment in Australia’s health and medical research workforce, providing a 5-year fellowship and research support for outstanding researchers at all career stages.

Anyone experiencing mental health distress can seek immediate support through Lifeline (13 11 14)—24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

Further advice and support through Butterfly Foundation’s ED HOPE helpline (1800 33 4673), Kids Helpline (1800 55 1800), Beyond Blue (1300 224 636), or the Government’s digital mental health gateway, Head to Health are also available.

Quotes attributable to NHMRC CEO, Professor Steve Wesselingh:

  • “This announcement is about the future of Australia’s clinical treatment, management, and prevention for those experiencing mental health distress."
  • “These projects hold significant potential in discovering a strong evidence base and trialling new approaches to give us the tools we need to achieve better mental health among young people and adolescents."
  • “I look forward to seeing the results of this ground-breaking research.”

Quotes attributable to Professor Patrick McGorry: 

  • “We urgently need a breakthrough to make ‘precision psychiatry’ – that is, personalising treatment to the individual patient – a reality and move past rhetoric, serendipity, and the time honoured ‘trial and error’ approach."
  • “We will tackle this by turning the traditional research approach on its head, working backwards from people who respond to specific treatments to understand exactly why they have got better.”

Quotes attributable to Professor Tracey Wade: 

  • “We are closing a knowledge gap between what works for disordered eating and what works for other mental health challenges such as depression and anxiety."
  • “Improving early intervention means that young people will experience better health outcomes, sooner. This is critical in a post-pandemic world where there’s been a three-fold increase in demand for eating disorder treatment.” 

Quotes attributable to Professor Matthew Spittal: 

  • “My Investigator Grant will use recently established real-time suicide registers to develop tools to quickly identify any increases in the suicide rate in a state or territory, or to identify the emergence of a suicide cluster in the community."
  • “These tools will equip coroners, health departments and primary health networks with the information they need to initiate a timely response to prevent further harm.”