Thinking big

Picture of HPU Director Dr Rachael Murrihy

Pictured: UTS Health Psychology Unit director, Dr Rachael Murrihy

Pioneering psychologist’s vision to promote youth mental wellness continues at UTS.

The UTS Health Psychology Unit (HPU) is continuing a legacy created by its founder,
the late Professor Antony Kidman, that is making a positive impact on young Australians with mental health issues.

Since it was established over 30 years ago, the unit remains at the forefront of new treatment methods, broadening its work to transform the lives of children, young adults and their families through innovative research and evidence-based clinical services.

“Ton Kidman was a big advocate of having no child fall through the cracks, and we’ve maintained that vision today.” – Dr Rachael Murrihy

“Our research is very much about testing new treatments and programs,” says HPU Director Dr Rachael Murrihy. “We keep our eyes on the mental health landscape and target the gaps.” The unit also works closely with the UTS Graduate School of Health to provide internships and training to develop the next generation of clinical psychologists.

Since Professor Kidman’s passing in 2014, the unit’s services have expanded to include a range of prevention initiatives for emerging issues, including talks at Sydney schools on bullying and managing HSC stress. Dr Murrihy says Professor Kidman’s ideals are still very much at the heart of the unit’s focus. “We wanted to help young people get through their formative years without struggling.”

Professor Kidman was a pioneer who brought cognitive behaviour therapy, now commonly practised throughout the world, to Australia during the 1980s. He became aware of the importance of early intervention for children in 2000. “Research was showing that 75 per cent of mental health problems onset before the age of 25,” Dr Murrihy explains. It led to a focus on treating youth that the unit is renowned for today.

The unit’s projects include Side by Side, a landmark trial for seven to 14-year-olds with disruptive behaviour issues – a major indicator of future mental health problems. The program focuses on Collaborative and Proactive Solutions (CPS), a new therapy from Harvard Medical School, which provides therapists with a range of additional treatment options.

This new approach is likely to be welcomed by the 20 to 40 per cent of families receiving parent management training (regarded as the current ‘gold standard’ in treatment), who say they struggle to find satisfactory improvement with current approaches, and have few alternatives left. With the trial now past the halfway mark, the results are encouraging: “We’ve had feedback from families who have said this literally has changed their world.”

In 2018, the unit will launch the Thrive Project, which seeks to address the higher risk of mental illness and suicide faced by children in regional, rural and remote New South Wales. Several generous donors, including wellness brand Swisse, are funding the first year of the three-year project, which will provide CPS training to teachers at 192 schools and reach 12,000 students.

Developing an effective delivery method that doesn’t involve establishing clinics was paramount. “People are worried about their privacy,” Dr Murrihy says. Having teachers coach strategies to all students in a school setting overcomes the visibility and stigma associated with seeking treatment in small communities.

Thanks to donors, many of whom have contributed since the unit’s establishment,
Dr Murrihy and her team are able to care for
all youth, including those from disadvantaged families or with severe issues. She believes there’s a real problem in Australia where
kids simply miss out. “Tony Kidman was a big advocate of having no child fall through the cracks, and we’ve maintained that vision today.”