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The CEO changing the mental health space

Meet the driving force behind Sane.

Jack Heath, CEO of mental health charity Sane, was the driving force behind the organisation’s online forums, an innovative way of providing help to those who need it, as well as providing a platform for people who want to share their experiences.

Heath has a mission to help youth at risk of suicide, sparked in 1992 when a young cousin with schizophrenia took his own life.

“I had just finished working for Prime Minister Keating as I had chronic fatigue,” says Heath. “I was reading about suicide rates at the time, and because of my young cousin I became quite interested in working out what we could do about it.”

Heath was involved in setting up the Inspire Foundation (now Reach Out) with the help of friends at Microsoft in 1996. “Our initial thought was how we could use the internet to help lower suicide rates,” he says.

After a few years in the US, Heath moved back in 2011, stepping out of the mental-health sector to work for four months with Kevin Rudd when he was foreign minister. Early the next year he was recruited to Sane. “I was not initially happy to go back into the mental-health sector,” says Heath. “In fact, I was quite reluctant.”

Similar experiences

He kept turning down the job as his daughter was doing HSC at the time and he did not want to relocate to Melbourne. He went to meet one of the directors of Sane, and they connected over similar experiences of loss.

“In the end, I just felt that every time I wanted to push against the door and say no, the door kept opening. I decided it was time to take on the job,” says Heath.

When he joined Sane, he realised there was a lot more hope for people living with mental illness than he had initially thought. “For me, to end up employing someone as my EA who had been living with schizophrenia for 15 years is incredible. I never thought this would be possible.”

Sane believes in ensuring the mental health of its staff members is taken care, to the extent of encouraging its workers to take a reflection week (an extra week of leave dedicated to soul searching). Staff members have to talk to Heath or the HR manager and come up with a proposal for their reflection week. It is not an extra week of holiday, but rather a religious pilgrimage, a yoga retreat, a great trek or anything with purpose and meaning.

Vibrant community

Heath says one of his biggest achievements was his involvement in establishing the Sane online forums more than two years ago. “We have built a vibrant online community for people with mental illness or family of those with mental illness, with professionally supervised 24/7 chats online and the chance to share their stories.”

He says he thinks it is critical that other CEOs model the behaviour they want to see. “I have a lot to improve on that myself,” he says. “It is also very important to take care of your own mental health as a leader.”

Sane, which has a staff of 30, connects with about one million people a year, and Heath hopes to double the organisation’s reach. “We are growing, and the challenge is to make sure the growth is on a sustainable footing.”

Heath says he will continue to tackle mental illness as well as keep fighting to end stigmas attached to mental illness.

This article originally appeared in Third Sector’s Movers & Shakers feature in the March print magazine. Click here for more info.

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