“This is my dream job.”
That was the thought running through the mind of Georgie Harman, CEO of Beyond Blue, when she first applied for the role six years ago.
Harman’s interest in mental health began when she was a public servant in Canberra and was given mental health as a portfolio responsibility.
“From day one it really captured me, I didn’t know anything about it; I learnt a lot very quickly, and the more I learnt, the more I thought ‘wow, we are really not doing a good job here. We are still letting people and families and communities down hugely,” reflects Harman.
“That captured every part of me and that passion for better policy, better decisions, new types of services…is probably even stronger in me today than it was 10 years ago.”
She has always admired the single purpose mission and drive that Beyond Blue exhibits. They are innovative, they push policies, and they have a very strong and trusted brand.
The organisation celebrates its 20th anniversary this year, and everyday, Harman has someone come to her and say “thank you.”
One of her first objectives when she joined Beyond Blue was to declutter. At the time they were trying to be all things to all people and she felt they’d be more effective if they trimmed down and augmented their services by partnering with other organisations.
“Let’s be really good at five things – really distil our purpose and activity.”
They reviewed the way in which they manifested partnerships too.
“We were a major sponsor of Mardi Gras. And we remain a huge supporter of Mardi Gras, you know, we were at Fair Day last week and we were at Midsumma in Melbourne a couple of weeks ago.”
What they have discovered is that they can be far more helpful to the community by being present at a grass roots level rather than if they sponsored a parade or similar activity.
“Beyond Blue has a huge community heart, but also a big business head. We absolutely first and foremost are owned by the community, we serve the community. The only reason we are in these jobs is to serve the community. But in order to get the best deal for the community, I have to run an efficient, effective, entrepreneurial, commercially minded organisation. And I’m really not afraid to say that.
“My shareholders are the 3 million people who are affected by depression and anxiety every year, and the 8 families who are bereaved by suicide, you know, those are our shareholders.”
Among those shareholders is a segment with whom Harman particularly empathises – the LGBTIQ community.
Harman says she knew she was gay from age 5 and had her first experiences with women in high school and university.
Born in Singapore, she was raised in England and moved to Australia in her early twenties. She embraced her sexuality early and was out to all her friends and most of her family except for her parents. Her hesitation around telling them was more the result of social conditioning than what she really knew about their characters, as she discovered.
“My parents were just so incredibly accepting and it didn’t affect our relationship, in fact it made it stronger. So my learning out of that was I completely underestimated my parents and I believed the hype around they wouldn’t accept me and they wouldn’t love me anymore.”
Though she has had her fair share of abuse including being spat on in the street and verbally attacked, Harman has found that being comfortable and open with her sexuality tends to make it harder for people to target and attack her.
Unfortunately, her experience at Beyond Blue shows that many LGBTIQ people have suffered destructive abuse.
“The reality is that prevalence rates of mental health conditions are much higher in the LGBTIQ community than in the general community. So that is a fact. But what we really need to be very careful and clear about is those high rates are not because we are LGBTIQ…We are just like everybody else, we are just as susceptible to environmental factors, to life events, to biology as the rest of the community. But what we do face as a community is the additional layer of discrimination, of prejudice, and of exclusion and stigma that adds an additional risk factor which we believe is one of the major contributors to those high levels of prevalence.”
During the Marriage Equality debate, Harman wrote an article for Huffington Post describing how damaging the survey was to mental health among LGBTIQ people. Now, with the new threat of the Religious Discrimination Bill, she fears the same thing.
“Certain sections of the bill have the potential, we believe, to really adversely impact mental health and well being especially for people who are same sex attracted, who are gender diverse, people with disability – and that’s at odds with national policy on this stuff.”
According to Harman, Section 42, as it is currently drafted, would protect anyone who expresses prejudiced and harmful views about LGBTIQ people, and some sections actually prioritise religious views over patient needs.
Beyond Blue made a submission to the Attorney General stating their position on the Bill. The submission is available to read on their website.
“Beyond Blue will always advocate for non-discriminating community systems, policies, institutions, because we know discrimination is a major factor for poor mental health and suicide,” says Harman.
Interestingly, Harman has endured more difficulties in the corporate world because of her gender rather than because she’s a lesbian.
“I have had to work a little harder, I’ve had to push myself forward, you know, speak up and find ways to navigate systems and environments in which people like me are in the minority.”
Health and community services are better on gender equality than many other sectors, and has good female representation in leadership roles.
Beyond Blue’s current board chair is Julia Gillard who also chairs the Global Institute for Women’s Leadership in King’s College, London.
Gillard has shared research insights from the Institute with Harman.
“We’re not seeing the rate and pace of change to be anywhere near what we need it to be to reach genuine equality. I mean, that’s just the fact,” says Harman.
“Setting targets is one of the things that is proven to work.”
While many women bristle at the idea of quotas, regarding it “tokenism”, it has proven to be a key element in areas where major gains have been made.
Harman is on the board of the Victoria Pride Centre and feels very proud and excited about the unique, high-level service the facility will provide.
“It’s going to be home for a bunch of fantastic organisations who are working in various capacities to support the LGBTQI community, to give them not only some great spaces to work in, but also sustainable place that they can call home.
“It’s going to be an absolutely stunning building. One of the things that we really were quite determined to do was to build something that is beautiful and iconic, not just something that is mediocre and just good enough. We deserve better than that.”