2019 – Cairns forum – Improving youth mental health

Theme: Improving youth mental health

The second QFCC Research in the Round forum on Improving youth mental health was held in Cairns on 26 June 2019. Three academics, Professor Brett McDermott, Professor Pat Dudgeon, and Dr Mark Wenitong presented on their research and knowledge gained from working in this area.


Panel members:


Professor Brett McDermott

Professor Brett McDermott is an Australian medical graduate with further qualifications in psychiatry, child and adolescent psychiatry and research. Career highlights include a Fellow of Churchill College Cambridge University; Executive Director of Mater CYMHS for 14 years and 10 years as a Director of Beyondblue. Research interests are PTSD, disaster responses, and child and adolescent mental health service provision. He is Professor of Psychiatry at James Cook University, Townsville and has published over 100 journal articles, chapters and books.

Professor McDermott’s presentation was entitled: Embracing complexity: why youth mental health problems require more than youth mental health interventions.

Professor McDermott spoke about the two revolutions that this century has commenced with; the biological explaining how stress changes our genome, and big data which drives much of social media. His discussion highlighted how aspects of both effect youth mental health.

Professor McDermott - Research Summary (PDF, 137KB)Professor McDermott - Research Summary (DOCX, 305KB)

Professor Pat Dudgeon

Professor Pat Dudgeon is from the Bardi people of the Kimberly area in Western Australia. She is a psychologist and Fellow of the Australian Psychological Society. Pat is a Professor and Poche Research Fellow at the School of Indigenous Studies at the University of Western Australia in Perth, Western Australia. Her area of research includes Indigenous social and emotional wellbeing and suicide prevention. Amongst her many commitments, she is a former Commissioner of the Australian National Mental Health Commission (completed 5 year term July 2017), deputy chair of the Australian Indigenous Psychologist’s Association, chair of the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Leaders Mental Health, co-chair of the ministerial Aboriginal Torres Strait Islander Mental Health and Suicide Prevention Advisory Group and member of NHMRC Mental Health Research Advisory Committee.

She is the executive director of the National Empowerment Project: an Indigenous suicide prevention project working with eleven sites in Aboriginal communities across the country, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Suicide Prevention Evaluation Project and the Centre of Best Practice in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Suicide Prevention.

Dr Mark Wenitong

Dr Mark Wenitong (Adjunct Professor, QUT) is from the Kabi Kabi tribal group of South Queensland, along with Vanuatu heritage. He has been the Public Health Medical Advisor and senior medical officer, at Apunipima Cape York Health Council since 2008, where he continues to practice clinical medicine, research translation, public health and remote health service program delivery. Dr Wenitong was the Aboriginal Public Health Medical Officer, and the acting CEO, at the National Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation (NACCHO) in 2012 and Prior to working at Apunipima, Dr Wenitong was Senior Medical Officer at Wuchopperen Health Service in Cairns for nine years. His key interest areas are very broad and include, clinical, food security, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander SEWB and MH as well as men’s health and youth SEWB, especially in remote communities.

He is a ministerial champion for QH’s rapid response areas. 

He was one of the founders and is a past president of the Australian Indigenous Doctors Association.

Dr Wenitong has worked as the medical advisor for OATSIH in Canberra. 

He is a member of the IPAG (national Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health plan implementation group), the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Leadership in Mental Health group and chairs the Andrology Australia- Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Male Reference group. He was a ministerial appointee to the PHN MH evaluation panel, and currently co-chairs the co-design of the national evaluation of the IAHP. He is an advisory board member of Thirrili (National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander critical response service), the Stars Foundation (for young Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women), and the Northern Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Alliance. He also sits on the advisory board for AHTV (Aboriginal Health TV). He chairs the Lowitja Health Systems research theme for the Lowitja Institute. 

He was previously a board member of AIATSIS (Australian Institute for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies, the AITHM (Australian Institute of Tropical Health and Medicine), the NCIG (National Center for Indigenous Genomics). He was a member of the Northern Territory Emergency Response Review Expert Advisory Group in 2008, and has Dr Wenitong received the 2011 Australian Medical Association Presidents National Award for Excellence in Healthcare and the Queensland Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Council Hall of Fame Award in 2010. The Medical Journal of Australia recognised Dr Wenitong and his colleagues’ (all Chief Investigators) multi - centre, randomised control trial on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander antenatal smoking cessation as their Best Research Publication of 2013.

He is a CI on several NHMRC funded research projects including an early childhood CRE and, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander youth resilience, and the MK study on cultural determinants with ANU.

His key interest is in ensuring that policy at both federal and state/territory level reflects the evidence base, is implemented across all levels of government and can actually work in Aboriginal and Torres Strait communities. He recently sat on the reference group for the latest AIHW report on the wellbeing of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander youth. 

He presents regularly both nationally and internationally on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health and wellbeing as well as workforce, and the current application of the evidence base in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander chronic disease and mental health, and social and emotional wellbeing.

Panel members

Dr Leanne Geppert

Dr Leanne Geppert was appointed Executive Director of the Queensland Mental Health Commission on 1 February 2019.

She brings to the Commission more than 20 years’ experience in developing, delivering and improving high quality mental health services, most recently as Executive Director of Mental Health and Specialised Services at West Moreton Hospital and Health Service. In this role she was responsible for the region’s mental health services, drug and alcohol services and primary health services in prisons, as well as statewide programs for forensic mental health, learning, research and benchmarking.

As the Commission’s Executive Director, Dr Geppert’s role is to oversee the implementation of Shifting minds: Queensland Mental Health Alcohol and Other Drugs Strategic Plan 2018-2023 and shape the development of policies and strategies that support and guide its implementation. She also provides high-level analysis and advice to the Commissioner regarding the strategic policy and program direction for mental health and substance misuse reform in Queensland.

Dr Geppert holds a Masters and Doctorate of Clinical Psychology. Her clinical and executive leadership experience spans child, youth, young adult and adult consumer groups, while her corporate roles have been relevant to all age groups and all types of mental health service delivery across the state, including non-government organisations, and the private and public sectors.

Dr Geppert is a registered psychologist with endorsement in clinical psychology. She is also a member of the Australian Psychological Society and the Australian College of Clinical Psychologists.

A lifelong commitment to mental health and drug and alcohol system reform positions Dr Geppert perfectly to lead the Commission team during such an exciting time in Queensland. This will be supported by her strong, established networks across the sector, and her passion for driving change and innovation through partnerships.

Ms Wendy Drysdale

Wendy Drysdale has spent 43 years working in Far North Queensland schools. With 21 years as a Guidance Officer and 10 years as a Senior Guidance Officer, Wendy has developed extensive knowledge around mental health needs of students in the region. As part of a team of the region’s Senior Guidance Officers, Wendy provides advice and direction to the wellbeing and mental health strategies in schools. Wendy also represents Education on the SCAN and Domestic Violence Interagency teams.

Ms Semara Jose

Semara Jose is a proud Gudjul, Eastern-Kuku Yalanji and Darnley Island woman. Despite limited formal mental health education, she has designed and delivered grassroots well-being projects for young people in the Cairns region. Semara has a passion for peer to peer well-being support and continues to advocate for capacity building opportunities for young people. Semara has worked over the past 8 years refining her skills in cultural leadership development to empower young people to be the best that they can be.

She co-founded and is currently the chairperson and coordinator of the Deadly Inspiring Youth Doing Good (DIYDG) Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander corporation. Currently studying a Bachelor of Business Administration, she hopes to contribute to building sustainable organisations and businesses that best serve the needs of young people in our community.

Photos from Research in the Round