Professor Patrick McGorry AO

A pioneer of modern mental health care, Professor Patrick McGorry AO (MD 2003) has never shirked a challenge.

Professor Patrick McGorry AO

In the 1980s when he moved into psychiatry, namely schizophrenia and psychosis, his medical colleagues tried to talk him out of it. “They said, ‘don’t waste your life in that field’,” Professor McGorry recalls. “‘Don’t waste your life on those people’ – in other words, the mentally ill.”

As a child of the idealistic 1960s and 1970s, the young doctor became determined to improve the situation. Five decades on, he has helped transform mental health care, earned a string of accolades, including 2010 Australian of the Year, and most recently played a critical role in putting the spotlight on mental health during the COVID-19 crisis.

Among many other things, he is now Executive Director of Orygen, Professor of Youth Mental Health at the University of Melbourne’s Centre for Youth Mental Health and President of the International Association of Youth Mental Health.

A PASSION FOR PSYCHIATRY

The eldest of four children, Patrick McGorry was born in Ireland in 1952. His family moved to Newcastle in New South Wales when he was 15. His father was a chest physician and his mother a nurse.

At Newcastle Boys’ High School, the studious young Patrick considered studying modern languages, which he excelled at, but says, “I couldn’t make the argument that I could really have a career in that space. My father would say things like ‘just get a medical degree and then you can do whatever you like’. And he was kind of right because that’s what I did.”

EARLY INTERVENTION AIDS RECOVERY

Professor McGorry made the move into psychiatry after studying medicine and surgery at the University of Sydney and was lured to Melbourne in the mid-1980s by Professor Emeritus Bruce Singh AM (Hon DMedSc 2014) to develop schizophrenia research programs at the now closed Royal Park Psychiatric Hospital.

Professor McGorry’s groundbreaking research - partly conducted through a Doctor of Medicine (MD) at the University of Melbourne - focused on recognising and managing early psychosis. “We found an earlier stage of the illness when there were clear warning signs,” Professor McGorry says.

An early psychosis centre that he ran morphed into Orygen, which Professor McGorry still leads. Working with like-minded experts globally, he drove reform based on early intervention and a recognition that those with schizophrenia could truly recover.

“Schizophrenia was regarded as an illness from which you simply could not recover, and patients were told ‘you’ll never work, you’ll never get married’,” he says. “We changed that.”

The Orygen team also broadened the early intervention model to include mental illness generally and, despite some controversy when others questioned their ideas, they have made steady progress since.

MENTAL HEALTH IN THE COVID-19 AGE

Professor McGorry says mental health services still need to be a much higher priority and receive a huge boost in funding, particularly in the COVID-19 era. While the global pandemic has shone a much-needed light on his field, as most of us have been affected, it will also greatly increase demand for already overwhelmed services.

“We know that when you have a global disaster followed by an economic recession the need for mental health care is going to go up dramatically and so are the suicide rates,” Professor McGorry says. “We’ve modelled a 30 per cent increase in the need for care.”

“There’s a huge need for a, safety net for mental health care, especially for young people because they’re going to be much more heavily impacted by the economic effects of this crisis and they’re already the group that bears the greatest burden of mental health across the lifespan.”

“It could go either way. We could get into deep trouble because we haven’t supported it properly, or it might be the pathway to finally getting the right level of investment and reform.”

In his rare spare time, Professor McGorry loves to ski, snowboard and surf; a skill he honed during his teen years. “When I was living in Newcastle I learned how to surf,” he says. “I’ve done that for the last 50 years and I’m still able to do it, just, as a geriatric.”