Jane Fisher is Jean Hailes' Professor of Women's Health at Monash University and leads the Jean Hailes Research Unit at Monash. An academic clinical psychologist, Professor Fisher is also the co-developer of the 'What Were We Thinking!' program and app for new parents.
What drew you to the field of women's mental health?
I graduated with an honours degree in clinical psychology. My clinical training was in one of the enormous psychiatric institutions that no longer exist. They were institutions which, I don't believe, were able to provide optimal care. I was very young, but even then I appreciated that women did not receive what I would regard as respectful comprehensive care.
In 1988, I undertook a PhD. My interest was in women's experiences of childbirth, in particular the psychosocial factors associated with caesarean childbirth and the psychological consequences.
A lot of literature at that time blamed women. What my PhD found was that the decision to perform a caesarean was much more about the doctor's feelings than the woman's, and probably influenced by clinicians' fears of being sued or criticised.
How can the broader community support women's mental health?
Women experience depression and anxiety at two to three times higher rates than men do because they experience higher rates of gender-based risks – mainly exposure to interpersonal violence across the lifespan. The other is gender-based restrictions on rights. So, the broader community can promote women's mental health by committing to equality of rights and opportunity, inclusion and respectful relationships.
What has been your most rewarding accomplishment in the field to date?
It's been an extraordinary privilege to be given this chair [professorship] in women's health at Monash [in 2011, co-funded by Jean Hailes]. It has given me an immensely rewarding opportunity to build a group of academics and students with a shared commitment to high-quality, gender-informed research, to inform understanding of women's healthcare.
What do you think is the most misunderstood aspect of perinatal health?
A lot of perinatal mental health literature says 'a woman's mental health problem has an adverse effect on her partner and her baby', whereas we turn that around and ask 'what is happening in her relationship with her partner and her baby and how are they behaving owards her that might be influencing her mental health?' That's where What Were We Thinking! comes in.
WWWT! is novel in that it seeks to prevent depression and anxiety by including women's partners and babies, and seeking to strengthen interactions in those relationships. It takes a confidence-promoting, rather than psychiatric, approach.
What is your ultimate hope/ambition for the WWWT! project?
It is that the WWWT! program becomes part of routine care for every family in Australia.
What would you say to a woman struggling with mental or emotional problems?
I'd ask 'what is it that's going on around you now, or in your past that's contributed to how you're feeling, and what is it that needs to change in your circumstances for you to feel better?' It's taking away the idea that you're sick and recapturing the sense that 'I can be an agent in my own life, and what can I do about it now?'
Find out more information on the 'What Were We Thinking!' program.
This article was originally published in vol. 2, 2017 of the Jean Hailes Magazine.