VicHealth Highlights 2017-18

Download the full report here (PDF, 3 MB)

Over the past year, VicHealth has continued to work tirelessly towards our vision of one million more Victorians living with better health and wellbeing.

Our VicHealth Highlights report for 2017–18 outlines our key achievements and presents the outcomes of some of our major investments.

The stories below showcase the real-world impact of VicHealth’s work over the past year. Here, we shine a spotlight on just some of our major projects, to demonstrate the difference this work makes.

None of this would have been possible without the wonderful contributions of our partners and the support of our stakeholders – so thank you.

You can download a full report of our VicHealth Highlights here (PDF, 3 MB).

This Girl Can

Around two in five Victorian women don’t get the exercise they need because they worry about being judged. VicHealth launched the local This Girl Can – Victoria campaign to address those fears and celebrate the raucous good times that active women enjoy.

In September, the VicHealth team were given the results of This Girl Can – Victoria, a campaign aimed at motivating women to overcome the fear of judgement that was preventing them from enjoying a more active lifestyle.

VicHealth CEO Jerril Rechter highlighted the importance of celebrating women who are all kinds of active.

‘This Girl Can – Victoria is about smashing those old-fashioned stereotypes and the fear stopping women from getting out there and giving it a go,’ she said.

‘It’s not about making women feel bad about not doing enough exercise. It’s about celebrating what they can do – even if it’s just a walk around the block or a few laps of the pool.’

The data showed that, within six months, the campaign had inspired a staggering 285,000 more Victorian women to get moving.

Before sharing news of the campaign's success with the media, Social Marketing Manager Melanie Fineberg shared it with the 25 women who were the very real, very relatable faces of the campaign.

‘It was amazing,’ says 19-year-old Dinasha Wimalasiri. ‘I did not know we had an impact like that. It makes us seem so powerful when all we did was to show that we play sport.’

In Dinasha’s case, playing the sport she loves – cricket – meant overcoming her community’s cultural norms around men being active while women stay at home. Hers is just one of the stories championed by This Girl Can – Victoria – alongside that of country mum Deb who conquered her embarrassment to start taking regular morning walks, and 50-plus Sally who overcame a sense of guilt to get back to her lifelong love of netball.

‘It’s really about smashing gender stereotypes and reimagining what it is for women to get active: however, whenever, wherever they want,’ says Fineberg.

The Victorian campaign was a local take on the UK’s highly successful This Girl Can, pioneered by Sport England. The insight that women were inhibited by a fear of judgment was common to both campaigns. The impacts, too, were similar (both succeeded in inspiring roughly 1 in 7 women to get moving).

Where the two differed was around motive. Sport England had a tight focus on participation levels, but VicHealth saw the campaign as part of a bigger objective to support the drive for gender equality.

As Fineberg explains, that meant collaborating with government bodies, women’s health groups, the prevention of violence against women sector, and sports clubs to promote the campaign, and to make improvements in the ‘actual places and spaces that women are going to get active in.’

These days, Dinasha says her involvement in This Girl Can – Victoria has made her even more aware of the power and efficacy of the women around her.

‘I’ve always known women were headstrong and capable of doing anything, but this has really proven it to me.’

Alcohol Culture Change Initiative

The way a group of people drink alcohol when they get together is heavily influenced by the rules and norms of the social contexts in which their drinking takes place. VicHealth has invested over $3 million in a series of projects aimed at changing local drinking cultures.

Horsham Rural City Council in Victoria’s west was faced with a challenge. Drinking among local teenagers had reached risky levels. In fact, research had found that just under half of local young people believed drinking to the point of getting drunk was a normal part of socialising, and almost all agreed that the purpose of going to a party was to get drunk. It was a deeply entrenched culture in a town three hours’ drive from Melbourne, with limited options for teenage-friendly activities.

It’s these sort of social contexts — or ‘social worlds’— that are the focus of the VicHealth Alcohol Culture Change Initiative. As part of the initiative, Horsham Council got to work with local young people on Youth C.A.N (Changing Alcohol Norms) which is one of nine projects being funded by VicHealth to change risky drinking cultures.

‘Drinking is inherently social,’ explains Emma Saleeba, Manager, Alcohol and Tobacco at VicHealth. ‘If we just target individuals in isolation we’re probably less likely to have an impact than if we think about the context of who they’re drinking with, where they’re drinking and why they’re drinking.’

The aim of YOUTH C.A.N is to shift, not only the behaviour of the teenagers, but the attitudes of parents who were enabling the underage drinking by supplying alcohol.

So far, Youth C.A.N has run alcohol-free events, worked with schools on alcohol education, and produced videos that have run at the Horsham Cinema as well as on Facebook and YouTube. The team also hosted the It’s Ok To Say No Information Night in which local Year 10 students brought to the stage their own experiences of the local drinking culture.

‘The young people were really courageous in terms of the show they put on and the stories they told,’ says Anne Donovan, Art, Culture and Recreation Manager at the Council.

Annie Mintern, the Council’s Alcohol Culture Change Project Officer, says the night prompted some parents to reassess their own contribution to the culture.

‘There’s been a shift in some of our parents who really understand now that it’s okay for them to say ‘no’ and be the one parent in the social group who says, ‘I’m not buying you the alcohol for the party’,’ she says.

A 12-month review of Youth C.A.N by Federation University provided the Council with some recommendations on how to strengthen the project for the future. ‘It’s fantastic the way VicHealth has set this up,’ acknowledges Donovan. ‘It’s been really good to be able to stop, reflect and learn.’

VicHealth Support for Vulnerable Communities

Factors such as race, gender, occupation and sexuality have a profound effect on the individual’s ability to lead a healthy life. VicHealth is committed to ensuring that all Victorians share in good health, and that ‘no-one gets left behind’.

Pride Game

Just a few weeks before the close of the historic ‘Australian Marriage Law Postal Survey’, VicHealth published research showing the LGBTI Victorians had poorer mental wellbeing than their peers, and lower life satisfaction. At the time, VicHealth Chief Executive Officer, Jerril Rechter proposed that a ‘yes’ vote would help address this social inequality.

‘Everyone deserves the same opportunity to experience good health and happiness,’ she said. ‘This new research shows LGBTI Victorians are experiencing poorer mental wellbeing than their heterosexual neighbours.

‘We need to do more to make LGBTI Victorians feel welcome in our community, including ending discriminatory laws and attitudes that may be putting LGBTI people at risk of poor health.’

The ‘yes’ vote won the day and, just weeks later, legislation was passed to ensure that all Australians had the right to marry, regardless of their sexuality.

This idea that no group of people should be at any greater risk of poor health than any other in the community is ‘health equity’ in action. So, too, is the notion that we should act to overhaul the laws that entrench that inequality.

Fundamentally, ‘health equity’ is the belief that everyone should have a fair and equal opportunity to live a happy and healthy life. And it’s a belief that underscores every project undertaken at VicHealth.

Certainly, it is evident in VicHealth’s ongoing support of Pride Cup Australia, an initiative that provides sporting clubs with the tools they need to host LGBTI-inclusive match days.

‘The Pride Game sends a message to members of the LGBTI community that they are welcome and safe,’ says Rechter.

A La Trobe University survey at the 2016 Pride Game between St Kilda and the Sydney Swans found that the proportion of non-LGBTI people willing to speak up when friends used homophobic language increased from 62 per cent before match, to 67 per cent after it. The uptake of the Pride Cup by clubs far and wide can also be seen as a measure of the program’s success.

‘Much of local cultural life is viewed through the prism of sport, the club is often the epicentre of the town, so to feel excluded as a fan, a supporter or a player further compounds negative mental health outcomes for LGBTI people,’ says Pride Cup co-founder, Jason Ball. ‘It’s so powerful to see other people’s stories being shared to build understanding and acceptance.’

Future Makers for Change

Young Victorians are more vulnerable to stress and anxiety than any generation before them. Now, VicHealth is supporting artists to work with policy makers, scientists and community workers on breakthrough cross-disciplinary responses.

Young woman speaking at conference

In her 20-plus years as an artist, Beci Orpin has designed for the likes of Mercedes and Kiehls, developed her own homewares range, written children’s books and DIY books, and run workshops for crafty adults.

Now she’s using her creative skills in a collaboration with the mindfulness platform, Smiling Mind. Since it was launched in 2012, the Smiling Mind app has been downloaded close to 3 million times and integrated into hundreds of workplaces and thousands of schools. But one group, teenagers, has proven hard to reach.

‘Where I come from is quite different from where they come from,’ says Orpin of the unusual pairing. ‘And hopefully we’re going to produce something that is pretty good together.’

The project, Happy is a Habit, will explore how creativity can be used to introduce mindfulness into the lives of teenagers. By early 2019, the Happy team will begin rolling out a pilot program of craft workshops, public art installations, musical experiences and a digital platform.

‘I think Beci and her network of amazing artists have been able to tap into something quite different,’ says Smiling Mind CEO Dr Addie Wootten. ‘The work that she does opens up an opportunity to engage people that we struggle to engage.’

The collaboration is part of the Future Makers for Change program, a Victorian government initiative supported by VicHealth that explores how artists can work with government and the community sector to make a positive social impact.

‘It’s not often you can bring health practitioners, social policy people and arts practitioners together,’ says Irene Verins, VicHealth Manager, Mental Wellbeing. ‘It’s a really good relationship in that regard.’

Orpin enthuses about the experience of working alongside the Smiling Mind psychologists. ‘It’s completely outside my comfort zone which is great for me,’ she says. ‘I’m so excited to see what we can learn.’

Dr Wootten is equally inspired. ‘The opportunity to work with Beci and have her ask questions and challenge our ideas is really great because it opens up a new way of looking at things,’ she says.

Over the next 18 months, the Happy team hope to learn more about how a sense of mindfulness can be embedded in the everyday lives of teenagers.

‘At the end of this process, I hope we’ll have a really engaged, enthusiastic and passionate group of advocates,’ says Dr Wootten. ‘I hope we actually create a movement. That’s what I would love to see.’

The Salt Reformulation Partnership

A staggering 75% of the salt we consume is ‘hidden’ in processed foods like pizza and sauces. That’s why the Salt Reformulation Partnership is calling the food industry to account.

In 2018 one of the leading makers of pasta sauces withdrew their popular product from the market, altered the recipe, and returned it to supermarket shelves with salt levels reduced by half.

They made the change not because they were required to, but because of the publicity generated by The Victorian Salt Reduction Partnership’s lists of high-salt and low-salt products. And some supportive encouragement.

Led by VicHealth, the Partnership is a coalition of public health organisations including the Heart Foundation and the George Institute for Global Health. The media attention gained by those product-ranking lists have raised public awareness of the salt ‘hidden’ in processed foods that accounts for the larger part of the salt in Australian diets. It also creates opportunities for the Partnership to kickstart conversations with food producers about reformulating their products to contain less salt.

The George Institute, owners of the comprehensive FoodSwitch database, are responsible for monitoring the salt levels in different food categories like breads and sausages. As senior project manager Clare Farrand explains, the results are shared with the Heart Foundation who then get in contact with the manufacturers whose products are high in salt, speaking to them ahead of the public release of their rankings, and offering the support of the Salt Reformulation Partnership to improve their product recipes.

‘It’s about striking that fine balance,’ says Farrand. ‘Yes, you could say that putting things in the media is potentially antagonistic, but if you do both things in parallel it can have a very beneficial effect. We’re having a lot of meetings with food manufacturers.’

A recent survey by VicHealth revealed that most Victorians would like to see less salt in home-brand products, and would actively pick a low-salt product off their supermarket shelves over a salty one. VicHealth Executive Manager of Programs Kirstan Corben notes that in this context, the tactic of appealing to manufacturers’ commercial instincts by publicly broadcasting product rankings is a powerful one.

‘You have to make our food industry publicly accountable,’ she says, ‘and when you start to benchmark them, you can really motivate change.’

Tobacco Strategy

The phenomenal decrease in smoking rates across the country is a public health success story. And yet, certain groups within the community are still missing out on the benefits of declining smoking rates. VicHealth’s Tobacco Strategy addresses the imbalance.

Cigarette smoke

People with drug and alcohol addictions, more often than not, suffer from nicotine addiction too. In fact, the smoking rate among people with substance abuse disorders hovers at 85 per cent. That means that they’re roughly six times more likely to smoke than their peers, and far more likely to die from smoking-related diseases than from the impacts of their other addictions.

Professor Billie Bonevski from the University of Newcastle is currently running a study to explore options for helping people with alcohol and drug addictions to end their nicotine addiction, too.

‘What we’ve found is they’re really keen to quit smoking,’ she says. ‘The majority of people we surveyed report that they’ve tried at least twice in the last 12 months to quit smoking, but they find it difficult to sustain a quit attempt.’

Professor Bonevski explains that it’s not uncommon for addiction treatment services such as withdrawal units to be smoke-free, with nicotine gum supplied to clients for the duration of their stay.

‘So it’s a really good opportunity to help them make a quit attempt,’ she observes.

Working with a withdrawal unit in Melbourne, Professor Bonevski has been supplying clients with discharge bags containing either an e-cigarette kit, or the products they need for combination nicotine replacement therapy (typically nicotine patches and an oral replacement product such as gum or lozenges). All participants have access to Quit Victoria counsellors who have been specially trained in supporting people dealing with substance-use disorders.

According to Professor Bonevski, the response has been nothing but positive.

‘These people want help with their smoking,’ she says. ‘We’ve been overwhelmed with interest in people signing up to the study, and how happy they are to be involved.’

Drug and alcohol addicts are not the only group struggling with troublingly high rates of smoking. Among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, for example, it sits at 48 per cent. For prisoners, it’s 74 per cent. For homeless people, 77 per cent.

Professor Bonevski’s study is supported by VicHealth to address smoking in socially disadvantaged communities, says Emma Saleeba, Manager Alcohol and Tobacco.

‘It’s very important that we maintain our work in tobacco control, particularly whole-population interventions such as taxation, smokefree areas, social marketing and advertising bans,’ she says. ‘But we also need to target and tailor our efforts in those population groups where smoking remains high.’