Professor Maree Teesson: at the forefront of mental health research

“Psychological research can change people’s lives for the better.”

Today (8 March) is International Women’s Day and an opportunity to highlight the impact of women in the community, in health and medical sciences, and in society at large. Within AAHMS, we are fortunate to benefit from the experience of eminent women researchers and health leaders. Women make up nearly one-third of our Ordinary Fellowship, according to our 2022 diversity report, and we are committed to closing the gender gap within our Fellowship.

One of the outstanding women in our Fellowship is Professor Maree Teesson AC FASSA FAHMS, Director of The Matilda Centre, Director of the NHMRC Centre of Research Excellence in Prevention and Early Intervention in Mental Illness and Substance USE (PREMISE), and an NHMRC Leadership Fellow at The University of Sydney.

Elected to AAHMS in 2015, Professor Teesson is an internationally recognised expert on mental health who has focused much of her research on the comorbidity between mental health and substance use disorders. She will co-chair our first Health Horizons Forum roundtable on innovation in mental health tomorrow in Sydney, along with journalist Sana Qadar, host of ABC program All in the Mind.

Below, Professor Teesson shares her passion for psychology, her interest in a cultural shift in science, and her vision for the future.

What attracted you to science, and psychology in particular?

I grew up in a rural community on the NSW Central Coast. There were fewer than 30 children at the local primary school. I was keen on learning and my parents valued education, but no one in my extended family had been to university. Both my parents had left school when they were 14 years old. When I went to the local high school, I knew I was keen on science, but I was unsure of where to go with it.

When I finished my exams, I still wasn’t sure what I wanted to do, and I happened to be talking to a medical specialist and asked them: if you had your time over, what would you do? That’s what led to me applying to study psychology.

Psychological research can change people’s lives for the better, and that is what attracted me.

I was hooked on finding ways to prevent and cure mental disorders. The challenge is significant:  1 in 5 Australians have experienced a mental health condition in the past 12 months. These are disorders that affect young people most significantly. Indeed, 3 in 4 people with a substance use or mental disorder will develop it before leaving school. Critically, substance use disorders, depression, suicide, anxiety, and psychosis frequently co-occur, share common risk factors, and interact.

When did a career in research first spark your interest?

My research started, at age 22, with understanding how many people in inner-city Sydney were homeless and experiencing schizophrenia. Only 500 metres from my office, a young man named Jonathon died alone from a drug overdose in a refuge for homeless men, having lost his battle with schizophrenia. That man’s mother, Anne Deveson, wrote the book Tell Me I’m Here about Jonathon’s life.

That book changed the way I thought about the research I was doing. Jonathon and my research taught me two important lessons: that drugs, alcohol and mental disorders often occurred together with devastating effects; and that we will always be playing catch up if we do not focus our research on prevention and early intervention.

What does your research focus on, and how does it translate into programs for the prevention and treatment of mental health issues?

My team’s research is at the forefront of prevention and treatment of mental and substance use disorders, having led to numerous “firsts” in the field. We have pioneered innovative treatments and e-health programs focusing on the prevention of alcohol and drug-related harms using internet-delivered, school-based technologies for students in Australia, the UK and the US.

Every year substance and mental disorders conservatively cost the Australian community over $40 billion. Effective prevention and early intervention can significantly reduce disease burden by halting, delaying, and interrupting the onset and progression of disorders. A new cohesive and integrated approach to substance use and mental illness is critical; one that capitalises on a range of advances in technologies and new models of causes.

What has been your proudest career achievement to date?

My proudest achievement is establishing The Matilda Centre at The University of Sydney with my colleagues, Professor Cath Chapman, Professor Tim Slade, Professor Nicola Newton and Professor Katherine Mills.

My vision has been to build a leading, dedicated translational research program for the prevention and treatment of comorbid mental health and substance abuse. While it has been recognised for many years that there is significant comorbidity in these two areas, they have traditionally been approached in isolation – making significant inroads virtually impossible. My research has sought to increase our understanding of drug & alcohol and mental disorders, prevent these where possible and improve treatment responses.

Our research is at the forefront of improving the evidence regarding the prevention and treatment. It integrates mental health, substance use, psychiatry, psychology, clinical trials, preventive medicine and epidemiology to ensure the science is rigorous, innovative, and truly world‐class.

What is one piece of advice you could pass onto young women interested in a career in science?

I am both a scientist and a woman, and it remains a challenge to balance an academic career and family. I have been very lucky to have support throughout my career.

Creating supportive environments is essential. I recognised early that there was little formal, structural support for young researchers, including young women and those with children. In my team, and in medical research in general, I am looking for ways to deliberately address this deficit. This has meant taking risks with my own career along the way. In my team I work to ensure junior researchers are fully credited for their work, including placing them first on published papers. The money and infrastructure that enter your research centre filter through to researchers from top to bottom. I also work at instilling self-confidence in my staff, we work together to “pay it forward”.

You are chairing a roundtable focused on innovation in mental health on 9 March. What innovations or developments would you like to see in the sector in the coming decades?

I love researching in mental health and substance abuse. Australia is at the forefront of this important area of research. Our “can do” attitude, cutting-edge science and passion for a fairer society help us lead the way. My hope is to highlight that at the Health Horizons Forum roundtable tomorrow.

Professor Teesson will co-chair Health Horizons Forum: Innovation in Mental Health on Thursday 9 March 2023.

You can read more of this article on Professor Teesson in her own words on the  National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre website.

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