With Dr Felice Jacka

26 July 17

There are few things that irritate Associate Professor Felice Jacka more than walking into the petrol station that looks like a candy store or seeing a McDonald’s next to a primary school. Dr Jacka has reason to be irked, though. She knows something that some of us may have suspected but few have traditionally taken seriously – poor lifestyle choices are contributing to the global problem of common mental illnesses.

‘Depression is one of the biggest public health problems of our age,’ says Deakin University’s Professor Michael Berk, who heads up Barwon Psychiatric Research Unit/ IMPACT Strategic Research Centre.

Along with Professor Berk and his research team, Dr Jacka is at the global forefront of ground-breaking work looking at the links between common mental illnesses, depression and anxiety, in children, adolescents and adults, and lifestyle choices such as diet, exercise and smoking.

 ‘A generation ago type-two diabetes was practically unheard of in India. Today in India, a child born will have a one in two chance of developing type-two diabetes. And that change has taken place in just one generation.’ Says Dr Jacka. 

The link between diet and mental health should come as no surprise, says Dr Jacka, given that food nourishes (or doesn’t) every part of the body, including the brain. ‘But when I came into psychiatry research I was surprised to realise there was no rigorous scientific literature or investigations into the link between diet and mental health!’

Professor Berk has encountered the same brick wall. ‘We know that smoking is associated with psychiatric problems,’ he says. ‘But people just don’t pay any attention to it. Smokers have a clearly increased risk of having a first episode of depression.’

‘Depression is one of the biggest public health problems of our age’

When he established the Strategic Research Centre in 2001, Professor Berk, like so many of his colleagues, was sceptical that the research would lead to any conclusive evidence. ‘I had no idea when Felice started her nutrition work that diet would be consistently predictive of mental health, and that it would be replicated in such a constant and reliable way.'

Although the team thought it was obvious in the psychiatric world this study was big news. A story about the findings was published on the front page of the prestigious American Journal of Psychiatry, with a big editorial that called it the most important study of the year.

Dr Jacka and Professor Berk are in no doubt about the importance of their continued work. ‘Of the burden of illness that comes with the changes to the world food supply – the prevalence of fast food, modern food processing etcetera – the head of WHO has said that there is no country in the world, no economy, that is going to be able to afford the cost of treating these illnesses,’ says Dr Jacka.

‘If we now add the burden of disability imposed by depression and anxiety to the list of illnesses influenced by unhealthy lifestyle behaviours, we can understand the urgency of the imperative to counteract the activities of the unhealthy commodities industry.’

But ultimately, they say, it’s on the ground that they really hope to make progress. ‘In the work we are doing it must make a difference to those suffering,’ concludes Professor Berk. ‘Otherwise we are wasting our time.’

‘If we now add the burden of disability imposed by depression and anxiety to the list of illnesses influenced by unhealthy lifestyle behaviours, we can understand the urgency of the imperative to counteract the activities of the unhealthy commodities industry.’

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