Mental illness, depression, loneliness is with us. Mostly buried away in silence.

Everyone thinks we should do something, be kinder, be alert. But, mostly, we are confused about what best to do.

Many of us support worthy charities like Beyond Blue and Lifeline. And we know we need to take practical steps — from the potential calamity stage back to the preventative.

In short, we need to stop privatising to socialising the problem. And focus on what to do.

Before elaborating, below there are 5 common sayings we might reflect on. Then I will outline some steps EG Funds Management (an Australian property fund manager) is experimenting with.

Five Sayings

1 “It is what happens to other people.”

Few people are untouched by mental illness. Within immediate and wider families, and among friends, someone is nursing a mental illness or social handicap and/or feeling lonely that frustrates their flourishing to their full potential.

2. “Lifeline and suicide prevention need our whole-hearted support.”

Yes, they do. There are so many charities with thousands mobilised to make a difference.

It is terrific, the voluntary work that goes into these efforts, in counselling, restoring self-esteem to the vulnerable.

But there is so much more to think about.

3. “It is unfortunate. People are born that way.”  

Yes and no. Medical research suggests that some people are born with crippling illnesses and inherent tendencies to succumb to mental illness more readily.

Sometimes there are triggers, sometimes not.

We do not know everything but some things we do know.

Some people are broken by experience and the environment in which they live.

We need to think about making the problem not just the personal anguish of an individual, to a society-wide challenge where we all have a stake in helping each other.

4. “It is a mystery.”

We still do not understand everything about ourselves. Even the wisest need time out.

To say it is a “mystery”, however, should not excuse our responsibilities.

Loneliness, for example, has been a problem for some time. Bowling Alone by Robert D. Putnam is a book published in 2000 that accounts for America’s declining social capital. Fewer people participate in community organisations, in voluntary work, church, educational activities, and even in sports. The book refers to the big drop over several decades in ten-pin bowling. Hence the book’s title. Putnam’s insights could easily describe Australian experiences.

How to make our lives more social is one aspect of curing causes.

We can keep a watch out within our families, with our friends, in our workplaces. And not only “watch”.

5. “Tackling the source of problems is even more important that addressing the symptoms.”

Surely that is right.

What we are talking about is costly to individuals and society. A government body, the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, estimated that $10.6 billion, or $420 per person, was spent on mental health-related services in Australia during 2018–19, a real increase from $396 per person in 2014–15.

In 2021, in our COVID-19 more isolated time, loneliness and mental illness is an even more acute problem.

Staggeringly, the COVID-19 pandemic contributed to a 20 per cent increase in calls to Lifeline Australia in 2020.

How work and communities be re-imagined, to make them homely, interesting, and engaging, is an urgent task. And that requires fresh thinking and initiatives, small and large, to tackle the challenge. 

Building Communities

A great start is to try to make a difference in what you can grasp and get a handle on.

Here are two approaches that EG is taking.

#1 Make our EG work community mental health focused.

EG is a highly talented, deal-doing focused organisation. But even here we are not immune.

With Adam Geha, EG’s CEO, devoting so much time to workplace culture, here are some initiatives:

  1. Cultivate a culture where speaking up, saying what you think, in an open and honest culture, is promoted.
  2. Encourage everyone, each six months, to develop a new hobby, sporting or cultural, that EG subsidises.
  3. Provide time off for any family emergency; as much as is needed.
  4. Enable one day a week for working from home. (We started this long before COVID-19, on Thursdays.)
  5. Take a real interest in knowing your work colleagues. We spend so much time at work. We should be friends, who have each other’s backs, not just colleagues.  
  6. Make available to all staff a confidential counsellor, on tap, that they can talk to on any work or personal issue any time during the week.

#2 Bring EG’s ‘Build-in Good’ (B.I.G.™) philosophy to life.

The most significant and long-lasting initiative that EG can take is to build communities, not just buildings.

This is the essence of EG’s B.I.G. Thinking™ philosophy. In any property development or asset management strategy, we meaningfully contribute to the creation of a community, the deepening of local networks, and the breaking down of barriers — so that locals, tenants and residents get to know each other.

In doing so, we hope to contribute to making people less lonely, less prone to brood alone, and more likely to engage with others. This is bound to make a difference.

For example, at the Flour Mill in Summer Hill in Sydney, we have taken these initiatives:

  1. Curate the formation of community markets that makes the Flour Mill more interesting, as part of the local community, not isolated from it.
  2. Preserve heritage, local and environmental. EG preserved the brushbox and blackbutt trees on site; an attractive children’s park is well utilised.
  3. Encourage cultural activities – jazz and musical performances, a morning ANZAC Day (bugle blowing) service, pancake and food services that are now organised by residents in the Flour Mill.
  4. Donate 3:1 to local community initiatives that are decided by Flour Mill residents.
  5. Support social media activities (Facebook mothers’ pages, exercise classes, etc.) to build a sense of community.
  6. Offer discounts for restaurants on site with arrangements that promote ‘getting to know your neighbour’.

These ideas are just a few we can apply to all developments and elaborate on in future posts.

A challenge we want to embrace in the future is how best to measure performance, so that it is not only the anecdotal that guides us as we try to establish objective benchmarks and measurement of improvements in mental health well-being. B.I.G. Thinking™ is the tip of the iceberg.