In conversation with
Betty Kitchener OAM

Alumna and mental health advocator

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GROWING UP, Betty Kitchener always liked helping others. She undertook a Graduate Diploma in Special Education at the Canberra College of Advanced Education (CCAE) in 1987 and became a special education teacher, fostering the growth of children in a learning environment.

An avid learner herself, Betty completed a further three degrees when the CCAE became known as the University of Canberra; a Graduate Diploma in Community Counselling in 1990, a Bachelor of Nursing in 1994, and a Master of Nursing in 1998.

Her attraction to the health profession, particularly mental health, was born out of her own personal experience with depression, which began when she was 15 years old. She has had subsequent episodes throughout her life. It led her to establish Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) Australia, a national not-for-profit organisation focused on mental health training of the public and research.

Over the last 17 years, Betty has facilitated the spread of the MHFA program across Australia and the globe, altruistically dedicating her time and resources to bettering the lives of thousands of people with mental health problems.

Betty received an Order of Australia Medal in 2008, an Exceptional Contribution to Mental Health Services Award in 2009 and in 2014 she was named as one of Australia's 100 Women of Influence by the Australian Financial Review. In 2015 she became a Member of the Order of Australia and received the Chancellor Alumni Award at the 2015 University of Canberra Distinguished Alumni Awards.

What sparked your passion for nursing?

I have always been attracted to caring professions as well as medical topics, especially physiology and anatomy. My first career was as a special education teacher.

What attracted you to mental health?

I suffered a major depressive episode when I was 15 years old and have had a number of subsequent serious episodes during my life. I also experienced discrimination after having an episode while I was working as a registered nurse. These events made me to want to make things better for people with mental health problems.

How did Mental Health First Aid Australia come into existence? Was it a lightbulb moment?

For a number of years I taught Red Cross courses in Canberra. One evening, in November 1997, when my husband and I were walking our dog, we had a conversation about why first aid courses did not cover how to help people with mental health problems. We decided we would develop a mental health first aid course as a community service activity in our spare time.

Is it aimed mainly at young people or is it ageless?

There are courses for all ages: adults helping other adults, adults helping adolescents, adolescents helping peers and very soon there will be a course for helping older people.

What is the program's greatest achievement?

The program began in 2000 with me working part-time as a volunteer. In 2004, I was invited to take the course to other countries. Earlier this year, the program reached two million people trained worldwide. Right now [at the time of writing], I am in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, training new instructors and growing the program’s reach.

Describe a life-changing moment you've had

I can name a couple. Reaching the decision to create MHFA Australia as a not-for-profit organisation would be the first. Cutting back the hours I worked as a nurse at Canberra Hospital to work as a volunteer and develop the MHFA training courses and roll them out would be the second.

Have you learned anything new in the last 12 months?

Yes, we have been doing great research on how to offer mental health first aid to an older person who is developing confusion. This will inform our new MHFA course, aimed at helping older people cope with mental health problems.

Your passions for teaching and mental health converge with MHFA Australia. Was that the intention?

No, it wasn’t the intention. The intention was to make things better for people suffering mental health problems. However, my training as a teacher, counsellor and a nurse, and my personal experiences of episodes of mental illness helped me develop the program. Although I started this course, I have been very fortunate to have some wonderful people join me as MHFA staff. They have made the further development, expansion and success of MHFA Australia possible.

What's next?

At the end of 2016, I stepped down as chief executive of MHFA Australia and am now a consultant developing the course aimed at older people. This course is very important, given that there is an ageing population and a growing number of people affected by dementia. I will also have more time for community service activities and a bit more time for leisure than I have had in the past.


Betty Kitchener

Graduate Diploma in Special Education (1987), Graduate Diploma in Community Counselling (1990), Bachelor of Nursing (1994) and a Master of Nursing (1998)

- Mental Health First Aid

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