Over eighteen years, Creating Futures has evolved from a conference to a movement that seeks to harness the experience, expertise, innovation and goodwill to build the capacities necessary to improve the mental health status of disadvantaged populations in Australasia and the Western Pacific. It exists as an independent, task-focused collaboration of individuals and institutions built on a foundation of relationships of trust across time, terrain, sectors and special interests. The 9th Creating Futures Conference was held online on July 21-22. The Cairns Institute (TCI) Adjunct Professor Ernest Hunter is the Conference Convener and together with Jennifer McHugh have been key conference organisers since 2012. TCI Fellow Dr Narayan Gopalkrishnan was a presenter and sits on the Steering Committee. Other supporters include; Fiji National University (FNU), The University of Papua New Guines (UPNG), World Health Organisation (WHO), University of Queensland (UQ), St Vincent’s Hospital, The Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists (RANZCP), SPC and Tonga, Samoa, Kiribati, Cook Islands and Solomon Islands Ministries of Health.
Despite a small budget and a lack of experience with digital platforms, the conference organisers were pleased with the results and deemed it a success. With 316 registrations; this equated to 130 sites, 9 timezones and 22 countries including Bhutan, Micronesia, Nauru, Indian, Maldives, USA, Samoa, Australia, New Zealand and Fiji. There was 28 presenters; including a pre-recorded introduction from Professor Vikram Patel, now located at Harvard. Keynote Presenter Assoc. Prof Abhijit Nadkarni from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine outlined how we need to Build Back Better Mental Health Global Mental Health as opposed to returning to pre-COVID conditions. Some recommendations included the need to integrate mental health interventions into other sectors, addressing mental health in children and incorporating technology innovations into mental health services. Currently based in Goa, Abhijit discussed the COVID experience in India and the immediate and long-term negative impacts of COVID on mental health. Island Nations presented on the Impacts COVID has had on their countries and the responses to the pandemic. Experiences differed dramatically with Nauru having had no cases of COVID but with 90% of the population vaccinated, to Fiji with rising infections, then to PNG with increasing numbers but dealing with vaccine hesitancy.
Other topics covered were the availability and ethical implications of expanding digital technologies for improved mental health, mental health and communities under stress – self-harm, family violence, the particular vulnerabilities of children and survey principles and practices – adapting for complex cultures and social circumstances.
Professor Zoltan Sarnyai (JCU Neuroscience) gave a well-received talk on the potential and need for The Centre for Brain Health in the Tropics. Zoltan and co-presenters from the Pacific facilitated discussion about the ways in which Pacific Island Countries could contribute to and benefit from the set up of the Centre for Brain Health in the Tropics at JCU – a world first. Collaboration is the key and the conference provided the ideal pathways to develop critical relationships. In the next few weeks the conference presentations will be uploaded to the Creating Futures website www.creatingfutures.org.au and at later, a report outlining the conference will be published and a survey completed by attendees.
The feedback has been overwhelmingly positive. Many suggested that considerations of the significant impacts of COVID on the regions are both physical and mental health, or as they say in Fiji, “there is no health without mental health.” There is a large need for Pacific countries to come together, connect and learn from each other and Creating Futures is a platform that helps facilitate this. A delegate from Nauru said “Sitting in the two-day conference had created a lot of thought, inspiration and drive to try and boost the services in our countries and current places of work despite the challenges we may have at hand, and learning from the other presentations as well. I hope we will continue to support one another through frequent contacts via webinars and zoom sessions to keep the momentum going.”
There have been many insightful comments from attendees including the following; “Mental health has always been a pandemic but COVID seems to have the spotlight. Mental health needs to be addressed, it is also a pandemic.” This brings us back to the conference opening and the quote from Vikram Patel “Mental Health is the greatest personal asset.”