THE DEATH of Anne Deveson –writer, broadcaster and social justice advocate – marks the final chapter of a life that reflected the immense change in the way Australians have perceived mental health issues over the past century.
Deveson, who died from Alzheimer’s yesterday at age 86, recalled travelling home from London 40 years ago after her father referred to her mother’s bewildering mental decline in a letter. “Bea is bats,” wrote her father, unable to articulate the subtleties of what we now know was Alzheimer’s disease.
Upon Deveson’s return, her mother described the affliction more poetically: “Anne, I’ve been in a forest and I can’t find my way through.”
If Australians’ understanding of mental illness has altered dramatically since the Deveson family arrived from Malaya as refugees during World War II, their famous daughter could claim much responsibility.
Deveson became the first Australian woman to run her own daily radio current affairs program. Fellow journalist Fenella Souter described her as “a fearless journalist, who made confronting programs about everything from lesbians to poverty to child abuse”.
Deveson’s second book, Tell me I’m here, bravely chronicled her son’s struggle with schizophrenia. Back in 1991, such a frank account of a ‘private’ illness was revelatory, and Deveson rode the wave of encouragement from families affected by the condition, to establish the NSW Schizophrenia Fellowship, and later the national body Schizophrenia Australia.
Deveson’s effectiveness at advocacy derived from her talent as a writer and broadcaster, and her passion to destigmatise mental health conditions. Her CV highlights this diversity, serving on both the South Australian Film Corporation (as chair), and the Royal Commission on Human Relationships, and receiving separate Australia Day honours for her contributions to both the media and community health.
As someone courageous enough to share her family’s intimate health struggles in the public space, Deveson had more than her fair share of bleak material. Her son with schizophrenia died of a drug overdose, and her daughter Georgia Blain, a novelist, died of a brain tumour last Friday, just three days before her mother.
Deveson’s book Resilience was inspired by the manner in which her partner, economist Robert Theobold, faced his own death from cancer in 1999. He broke the news of his unexpected diagnosis over the phone from hospital – he had good news and bad news. The good news was that he was going to ensure his remaining six months were spent fruitfully.
Resilience explored why some people and communities are better able to cope with adversity than others. How can resilience best be taught, particularly during the formative years of young adults?
Maybe one day someone will write Deveson’s biography, describing how she repeatedly turned adversity into strength, and managed to forge a career in a man’s world while raising three young children.
I have no doubt the word ‘resilience’ will deserve its place somewhere in the title.