Fierce rivals UNSW and University of Sydney team up to improve mental health

The Sydney Morning Herald

 Professor Ian Jacobs, UNSW's vice-chancellor. Photo: Brendan Esposito Professor Ian Jacobs, UNSW's vice-chancellor. Photo: Brendan Esposito

Two of Sydney's top universities will no longer compete but collaborate to tackle one of Australia's most devastating health problems - mental illness and addiction.

In a first, Sydney University and UNSW Australia on Thursday announced a partnership across an entire field of research, affecting hundreds of researchers and staff, multiple faculties and research institutions.

It's also a model for future collaborations, said the vice-chancellors, UNSW's Professor Ian Jacobs and Sydney's Professor Michael Spence.

With at least one attempted suicide every 10 minutes, and seven suicides every day in Australia, the two vice-chancellors argue the problem of mental health and addiction is too expensive, too harmful and too pervasive for each university to go it alone.

Estimated to cost around $30 billion a year, nearly half of all Australians experience a mental illness at some stage in their lives.

Every year, one in five adults suffers from anxiety, depression, or a drug or alcohol problem.

Staff from both institutions have already met with the NSW Mental Health Commissioner John Feneley to identify priorities and future research projects.

To the average Australian, the initiative may sound like nothing more than common sense, said Professor Spence. But the rivalry between the two institutions had been legendary, with less collaboration than that seen among Melbourne universities.

 Professor Michael Spence, vice-chancellor of the University Of Sydney. Photo: Brendan Esposito Professor Michael Spence, vice-chancellor of the University Of Sydney. Photo: Brendan Esposito

"These are universities that have had the Cambridge/Oxford, Harvard /Yale, kind of bitter rivalry," Professor Spence said.

"It is a tricky kind of thing because a little bit of competition is good, and you wouldn't want to have one mega university for Sydney because a little bit of polycentricity, a little bit of competition, a little bit of opportunity for people to disagree, spurs innovation," he said.

UNSW vice-chancellor Ian Jacobs said "the devastating impact" of mental illness and addiction could not be understated.

The new vice-chancellor, Professor Jacobs, had been surprised that a city like Sydney - a global leader in many ways - did not have a university in the top 20 of the world.

He hoped the partnership would create a world class centre of excellence for research.

"We now have within our grasp the potential for major breakthroughs in understanding how these conditions work, and ultimately, the development of treatments to alleviate suffering," Professor Jacobs said.

The Minister for Medical Research Pru Goward congratulated UNSW Australia and the University of Sydney and said the importance of the historical medical research partnership couldn't be underestimated.

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