2010 Australian of the Year Professor Patrick McGorry still faces the question of ‘where are you from?’. Arriving in Australia as a teen, Professor McGorry was confronted by a blunt and racist culture not too dissimilar from the divides he experienced during his formative years as a young Irish man in Wales. 

As a psychiatrist Professor McGorry has recognised the need to improve treatment for teens with mental illness and has spent years campaigning for increased awareness and early intervention. Professor McGorry believes we still have a long way to go to ensure that the future of young Australians is safe and bright.

THE PIN. Where did you grow up?
PATRICK MCGORRY. I was born in Ireland and when I was about two years-old my family moved to Wales (South Wales). My family were there until I was about fifteen, then we emigrated to Australia.

Growing up, were there family values and traditions around culture and identity?
P. We were an Irish family with a very Irish mind-set and structure, we were different from people in Wales, we were much more sober and serious and quiet. Generally speaking, Irish people were looked down upon and seen as inferior. We definitely had an inferiority complex, even though my dad was a doctor.

Did you find that understanding your family's heritage was important to the development of your identity? 
P. Yeah, very much so. I never felt Welsh and then when I came to Australia as an adolescent I had another identity to consider. I probably did gradually take that on. I was naturalised in 1974, about six years after we came to Australia. I always felt I was trying to find another identity, I suppose, and the Irish one was a very attractive one. As I’ve grown up I find a lot more admiration and connection with Ireland and Irish values and culture. It’s fantastic, it’s so resilient. It’s been through the worst things and when we left it was very poor, yet now it’s improved.

When you first came to Australia as a teenager were there distinct characteristics of Australian culture that stood out to you?
P. It was pretty harsh and racist, very Anglo and especially in Newcastle where we grew up. Australia was harsh and blunt and in your face, that was challenging but it was probably more honest and better in some ways. Yeah, it was a big culture shock. Prior to moving here we thought ‘everyone speaks English, this won’t be much of an adjustment’. It was a massive adjustment, obviously much worse for people who don’t speak English but nevertheless, we were from an English speaking culture and it was still a big culture shock.

When did you first become aware of race? Was it something that happened gradually or was there a particular incident where race really stood out?
P. Well because I was already a migrant as an Irish person in Wales, I was a bit aware of it. Australia was already a bit more diverse than Wales but only because there were a few Italians and Greeks around the place. They got a really hard time and I was amazed by that because in Europe, Italians and Greeks were really well respected because of their history and culture. Yet they were treated like shit in Newcastle, so were the English actually. Being Irish was a slight protective factor in Australia because you weren’t English, and you were white, so you didn’t get such a hard time.

The other thing I noticed was the attitude to Aboriginal people, they’d only just got the vote and it was like coming to South Africa. They were treated as a totally subhuman race by the white Australians. The language that was used about them, the ridicule, they were treated absolutely appallingly and spoken about appallingly.

In regards to your field of expertise, where you always drawn to psychiatry?
P. It’s a complicated question. I didn’t really want to do medicine but I had a lot of pressure from the family to do it. I wanted to focus more on humanities and I found within medicine, psychiatry was the closest thing. At the time it was a very challenging, because treatments used were so terrible and it was an obvious thing that needed to be tackled.

I was fascinated by the depth of it, within medicine as a human thing, so I decided to give it a go.

What is it about psychosis and mental health in youth that really stood out to you as an area of interest?
P. I suppose we saw all the new cases of serious mental illness occurring in adolescence and young adults, and they were getting treated in a system that was really designed for the benefit of middle-aged people with chronic illnesses. It was completely unsuitable and an absolutely terrifying experience for the young people, at the worst time of life for this to be happening to them. No-one was doing anything about it and I suppose I did identify with the young people a lot. I was still reasonably young myself and I’d been through some pretty challenging adjustments myself growing up, it’s a difficult time for everyone, so I just found I identified very strongly with them. The treatment was outrageous and I was very angry with the way the whole system treated young people.

For a young person with mental health issues today, has there been a change to stigmas around mental health and are we talking about it enough?
P. I think we’re talking about it all the time now but we’re not doing enough about it. There is plenty of awareness but people think that just being aware and discussing it in a simple way is enough, but it’s not. You have to provide expert care for people. We’ve started to do that with Headspace, but it’s only the first step, it’s the base camp. The mountain is still there to be climbed.

You were Australian of the Year in 2010. Did that have any impact in how you were able to get your message across about mental health?
P. Oh yeah, it’s the biggest leg-up in mental health. It was fantastic. I was able to get access to media, politicians and other intellectual people. It gave me credibility, I was still the same person but it gave me a sort of credibility I didn’t have before. It was a fantastic gift, not just personally but for what I was trying to do and the whole field. It also provoked a lot of envy and enemies as well, people trying to stop me, so there was a downside to it as well but overall, it was fantastic. A lucky break.

Do you get asked where you are from, and when you do, how do you respond?
P. I don’t get asked where I am from, because of my colour or anything like that but maybe my accent isn’t completely typical so I might get asked for that reason. It’s a bit complicated for me, because I always say I am an Irish-Australian, I was born in Ireland but I try to leave out the Welsh part because I never felt that was part of my identity. On the other hand, when you spend all those years of childhood in one place you see what connects you to the place, not the culture. I wouldn’t say Welsh culture is part of my identity but the place is definitely a part of it. Because I had two migrations it takes me longer to explain. I’ll often say things like ‘I’m probably mainly Australian’, because I’ve spent most of my life here and my attitude is like an Australian - egalitarian and anti-establishment - but I do identify with the beauty and depth and emotion of Ireland. It’s hard to explain that without getting into too much depth and people don’t really want to know most of the time.

Do you travel back to Ireland at all?
P. A lot, I did a sabbatical there in 2009. Ireland has Headstrong, which is like Headspace in Australia. It was a chance to do work in Ireland, which was fantastic. I travel there probably three times a year, especially with my son there. It’s really connected my family with Ireland.

Do you find that you feel more Australian when you travel to abroad, specifically to Ireland? 
P. I was shocked in Ireland, I idealised it as being the fighting country where people are against government. Though they are much more conformist than you’d think. They have this idea of being the ones that really fight for themselves and their culture, so I feel like an Irish exile when I go back there rather than an Irish person. I do feel like an Australian in that way too, because that’s what Australians can be like. That’s the stereotype, the generalisation, that you just cut through the crap and say what you think...and not conform too much. I do feel different from the local Irish people in that way, on the other hand I have this connection with them too, and my true personality comes out a lot more when I am there.

THE PIN. If you could give your younger self one piece of advice about being in the skin you’re in, what would it be?
PATRICK MCGORRY. I didn’t have a lot of confidence to do things until I was in my forties. I think I laid a lot of groundwork, which paid off in the long term, but I would’ve liked to have done more and been more entrepreneurial earlier on.

- This interview has been edited and condensed

Photo credit: Australian of the Year




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