Gabrielle Kelly: Mind over matter

Gabrielle Kelly – documentary maker, entrepreneur, director – is a strident force at the helm of one of South Australia’s most challenging emerging industries. Kelly is on the very cusp of the knowledge economy seen as SA’s future, directing the Wellbeing & Resilience Centre at SAHMRI.

Gabrielle Kelly – documentary maker, entrepreneur, director – is a strident force at the helm of one of South Australia’s most challenging emerging industries. Kelly is on the very cusp of the knowledge economy seen as SA’s future, directing the Wellbeing & Resilience Centre at SAHMRI. The W&RC ultimately answers to Professor Julio Licinio, head of the Mind and Brain research theme at SAHMRI. ‘Wellbeing’ has an uncomfortable, middlemanagement wishy-washiness about it, which Kelly recognises with a laugh. “We, the people of Australia, [respond to] ‘wellbeing’ with ‘Ugh, nah, what is that?’” says Kelly. “Worldwide, the interest in wellbeing measures is growing daily and there’s now too much steam under the word ‘wellbeing’ in the academic realms of measurement to not use it. In the work that’s happening on serious measurements in bureaux of statistics, ‘wellbeing’ is in the lexicon.” The decision to house the Wellbeing & Resilience Centre in SAHMRI speaks to the centre’s scientific commitment and research pedigree. South Australia’s commitment to SAHMRI speaks to the state’s interest in fostering a real knowledge industry. “I think this building is iconic of a strong intention,” says Kelly of SAHMRI’s award-winning design. “Everyone sees the way SAHMRI is presenting itself and the calibre of research leaders across all of the themes; nobody is suggesting that this state is not serious about this intention. Nobody is suggesting that SAHMRI is not seriously going to take its place on the world stage, and we [the W&RC] are proud to be associated with that. “The building itself – the beauty of the architecture, the boldness of the vision, the creativity of it, all support the proposition that this is a serious commitment. That’s what we find when we bring ambassadors in here. All sorts of people come for visits and they are really gobsmacked and impressed. We are positioning a new industry for SA that has a lot more grunt behind it.” The acceptance of the term, and the striking statement of SAHMRI’s presence, is just the beginning, says Kelly. What is most important is the global recognition of the science behind ‘wellbeing’. “The key message that Martin [Seligman, former Adelaide Thinker in Residence] left us with was that wellbeing is now measurable,” Kelly explains. Using Seligman’s academic framework, PERMA’ (Positive emotion, Engagement, Relationships, Meaning and Accomplishment), researchers are able to take any group and assess their baseline PERMA, develop strategies and interventions to improve wellbeing and resilience, and then evaluate the outcomes. The W&RC has included research other than Seligman’s in their PERMA model, introducing resilience, optimism, physical activity, nutrition and health. This approach is known as ‘PERMA+’. “Why are we doing it?” asks Kelly, “because one in four people have mental illness – because one in five young people have mental illness – and we think positive psychology has something to offer.“It’s not going to save everyone from catastrophic mental illness and mustn’t be confused with clinical approaches to mental illness – we’re not doctors and we’re not pretending that positive psychology is magic.” But, Kelly continues, “we’re not after pop psychology; we’re not after magical thinking. We are after evidence-based research which proves that if you teach people the skills of wellbeing and resilience, they are more likely to be able to handle the challenges of life.” This skillset is what Kelly and the W&RC are calling a ‘PERMA+ backpack’: a knapsack of cognitive resources that can mentally equip people to process the stressors and triggers of everyday life. It is a preventative mental health initiative. Kelly describes it as a similar branding message’ to ‘Slip Slop Slap’. “When you think about ‘Slip Slop Slap’, that was the science of anti-cancer implementationturned into a public health message that was palatable. Now, as I say, it’s not precisely the same thing, but it’s enough alike that we could take some learnings from it. We’re going to take from public health approaches what is good knowledge about how to translate messages, but we’re going to also take what is good knowledge about the translation of real science to the community.” The community in question is South Australia’s general public. The Wellbeing & Resilience Centre’s research and aims are the first to be concentrated on a population of this size. “Our mission is to take a public health approach to building wellbeing at scale. That’s our mission.Everyone’s own wellbeing and psychological fitness is their own business – mine’s private, yours is private – but if you put us all together it becomes a matter for public health,” says Kelly. “If you have one in four people who are mentally ill, and positive psychology can do something to improve that, or reduce the number of people going into catastrophic mental illness, then that would be a great result.” The W&RC’s research aim is to establish a metaphorical ‘herd immunity’ for the psychological welfare of South Australia’s population. Just like vaccination for disease, some people will still be vulnerable, but by surrounding these at-risk individuals with a community of people equipped with knowledge and in-tune with psychological principles, it is less likely these individuals will slip through the cracks. Part of the W&RC’s mission relies on training: there must be an education system in place to train and qualify people in positive psychology. The training must be low-cost and accessible, so that these principles can reach the public quickly and broadly. “That’s the only way we can go to scale.” However, Kelly and the Centre are aware of the potential for knowledge appetite to outstretch the number of people fit for qualification. She is adamantly clear: “If people receive a little taste of training and then decide for themselves that they’re experts in positive psychology, that would be a serious mistake, and it’s not a mistake that we support. The reason we are proceeding rapidly to get a system of skills and education and credentials, is we want people teaching positive psychology who have legitimate educational capability in the area. That’s a really important matter.” Kelly draws a wide, stark line between self-directed health consumers, self-help and what the Wellbeing & Resilience Centre is doing. The centre will only accept research projects if participants are willing to undergo baseline measurement and rigorous evaluation; evidence-based research is the only work the centre is involved with. “We are absolutely determined to stay in the scientific realm of this science of positive psychology. We are absolutely not interested in pop psychology or people who misrepresent their skills.” The work has already begun. The Wellbeing & Resilience Centre is working with the workers at Hirotec and Futuris, who will be affected by the closure of Holden’s South Australian operations. They are also involved in a major project with 39 schools in the north of Adelaide, measuring the baseline wellbeing of the students. The centre is seeking partnerships with industry, with business and with population groups – single mothers, disadvantaged youth, the elderly – to become involved with research. “Our dream,” Kelly says, “is that every mum and dad that has a kid understands when they ;become a parent that they’ve got an obligation to build the PERMA+ of their child. We have a dream that every manager and every university and every business takes it on board to be responsible for building the PERMA+ in the workforce, in order to reduce the statistic of one in four people suffering from mental illness.” sahmri.com.au