From lamington drives to funding mental health research

Ninety-year-old Betty Garrett still marvels at how the lamington drives and bake sales she organised in the 1980s have led to real research insights into mental health today. 

As a concerned mother of a son with schizophrenia, Mrs Garrett personally felt the lack of healthcare infrastructure and support for mental illness on the Sunshine Coast, Queensland, at the time. She set out to create a support group for other loved ones of those with mental illness – a local arm of ARAFMI (Association of Relatives and Friends of the Mentally Ill). The groups’ journey would span decades, and raise hundreds of thousands of dollars for research. 

The group, now with more than 400 members around Queensland, worked diligently, organising local fundraisers in the spare moments between looking after their struggling loved ones. Through countless bake sales and lamington drives, the group raised enough money to purchase two government half-way houses, which they set up as living quarters for their adult children with mental disorders. mentally ill males, who, at the time, often had unsympathetical parents who misunderstood their symptoms and kicked them out of home.

The halfway houses were sold in the early 2000s, with profits over $250,000 donated to the Ipswich Hospital Foundation to form a scholarship fund. A portion of that fund is annually awarded to a PhD student. 

QBI students lead the way in mental health research

The first recipient of the scholarship was QBI researcher Dr James Kesby, whose coincidental Sunshine Coast origins brought the money back to its very roots. 

“It still blows my mind that the first time I met James, I casually asked him where he went to school, and he said, ‘Beerwah high school’,” past-President Jackie McLaughlin said.  

The money we invested had come a full circle, she said, “from where we started in Nambour, round the circle, and back to the Sunshine Coast.”

“I looked at him and I said, ‘that’s an awful lot of lamingtons I made for you’.” 

Dr Kesby’s PhD laid the groundwork for research into the link between vitamin D deficiency and schizophrenia.

Ilvana Dzafic, who has recently completed her PhD, was another recipient of the award. Her research looks at predicting the risk of schizophrenia, which may help in diagnosis.

Aurélie Flaive, a University of Geneva Master of Interdisciplinary Neurosciences graduate, has just been announced as the 2017 recipient. Ms Flaive will join QCMHR’s Developmental Neurobiology laboratory at QBI to research the relationship between dopamine and schizophrenia. 

Going the full circle: seeing the research they funded

Mrs Garrett and other original organisers make an annual trip to QBI to meet with the Institute’s mental health researchers and the students whose work they have funded. QBI clinical mental health researcher, Professor John McGrath has known the group since ARAFMI.for many years. 

“You were out there, in the trenches, trying to get better services for your children, your loved ones, your relatives – and you have my respect for that,” Professor McGrath said to the group at a recent annual visit to QBI.

“We know we need more services, but what we really want is to prevent the illness, and we want to cure it. That is what we must aim for,” he said. 

Mrs Garrett is aware it’s unlikely schizophrenia will be cured in her lifetime, but hopes the research will end the suffering of those to come after.

“I’m so grateful that you’re all putting so much effort and time into all this research,” Mrs Garrett told James and the other schizophrenia researchers. “It means the world to me, because I’ve got eight grandchildren and 11 great-grandchildren, and I’d just hate to see them go through what we went through with their loved ones, should they develop schizophrenia,” she said.

Last updated:
14 June 2017