Mental health leader recognised
A fierce advocate of women’s health who is also a migrant, mother and former marathon runner, Professor Jayashri Kulkarni AM has been recognised in this year’s Queen’s Birthday honours.
Professor Kulkarni is a world-leading mental health researcher and director of the Monash Alfred Psychiatry research centre (MAPrc). She is now a Member of the Order of Australia (AM) for significant service to medicine in the field of psychiatry.
Professor Kulkarni’s world-first research on the relationship between women’s hormones and mental illness has led to new and improved treatments for conditions such as schizophrenia and depression.
Working as a young Registrar at the former Royal Park Psychiatric Hospital, Professor Kulkarni was drawn to the plight of mothers who had developed mental illness after giving birth.
“I got to meet women who had been institutionalised for a long time and they told me about the fact that they had children,” she says. “The psychosis had happened post-partum and it hadn’t improved.”
This led to a distinguished career investigating the relationship between hormones at varying life stages and women’s mental illness. World-first estrogen treatments for psychosis and other mental health conditions have been developed from this research, which began in the late 1980s.
Growing up in Melbourne as an Indian migrant in the 1960s
Professor Kulkarni’s late parents, Rangnath and Shashikala, arrived from Bijapur, south-west of Mumbai, in 1961 with three-year-old Jayashri and her baby brother Anand.
The White Australia Policy was still in force when they became only the second Indian family to migrate to Melbourne. Rangnath set up the CSIRO’s ozone research program and Shashikala taught at a local high school.
“At this stage there were probably some people with Italian background and Greek background but not very many Asian migrants at all,” Professor Kulkarni recalls.
“I was called Jane for a few months by this teacher, who said, ‘I can’t say your name it’s too complicated’. My mum came to pick me up and she spoke with the teacher, but in a very gentle way, taught her how to pronounce my name, and I was then called Jayashri.”
Professor Kulkarni studied medicine at Monash University in the 1970s, when fewer than one in three students was female, which helped instil the strong sense of empathy and social justice that inspired her work.
MAPrc now has more than 100 staff and conducts world-class research on women’s mental health, neuropsychiatric technology, psychopharmacology, psychiatric services and cognitive psychiatry.
“There’s a better understanding of mental ill health, but I think what we need is more effective treatment without adverse effects,” Professor Kulkarni says.
Professor Kulkarni, who has two daughters with her neurologist husband, Associate Professor Ernie Butler, insists her work is a team effort.
“When you make even a little difference in somebody’s life and improve the quality of their life just a tiny bit, it is so satisfying. It also spurs you on to think what’s next?"
“It’s always about not ‘settling’. If a person is able to get a bit better, but still not well, that doesn’t mean that you stop. You then try to find the next thing that you can do.”