MJA Careers: Medical mentor – Professor Louise Newman

Professor Louise Newman reflects on her career in psychiatry

Melbourne infant psychiatrist Professor Louise Newman specialises in disorders that make parenting difficult. At Monash University, she is Professor of Developmental Psychiatry and Director of the Centre for Developmental Psychology and Psychiatry. Professor Newman is Chair of the Detention Expert Health Advisory Group for the Department of Immigration and Citizenship. She is also Chair of the Borderline Personality Disorder Expert Reference Group for the Department of Health and Ageing. In January, she was appointed a Member of the Order of Australia in recognition of her services to medicine in perinatal, child and adolescent mental health, to education and as an advocate for refugee and asylum seekers.

“When I left school in 1976, I was interested in philosophy, politics and gender studies, so I did an honours degree in psychology. During the early 80s, I became interested in psychological theories of development and psychoanalysis, which were big at universities in those days. Psychology, at the time, was very much dominated by behaviourism, a theory that I didn’t particularly like. I wanted to do clinical work and was interested in abnormal psychology, so I decided to try to get into medicine when I was in my 20s and study psychoanalysis along the way.
I was among the first 10 graduate entries into medicine. Studying medicine was a big decision and it’s been quite a long path. But I was lucky to get that broad education.
My interest in early development led me into child psychiatry. I’m an infant psychiatrist, so I see parents with babies up to 3 years of age. I work with so-called ‘high-risk’ parents, who are often people with psychiatric difficulties or their own history of abuse or neglect.
Some of them have clinical diagnoses related to their own early trauma. I’ve always been interested in the impact of trauma on development. I’m working at the cutting edge of transgenerational issues, but there hasn’t been much research into interventions that prevent psychiatric conditions impacting from one generation to the next. Looking at babies and young children who might be at risk of developing problems is very encouraging work. We don’t catch mental disorders, like the common cold, in adolescence. There are lots of risk factors, much earlier, and it’s those I’m trying to work with. It’s hard because it’s an under-researched area and it’s hard to get research dollars. But I’ve got some PhD and research staff at Monash looking at the impact of interventions for high-risk parents.
I am interested in interventions that might help parents who end up in a child protection system. We’re doing things like taking video footage of parent–infant interactions and playing this back to parents, teaching them about communication and play. We’re also using training DVDs to teach parents about how babies communicate. We’re using functional MRI to help us understand parents’ responses to different emotions in the faces of children.
We also do refugee research. We’re looking at the school-based identification of young people who might be still suffering symptoms of trauma-related conditions, due to what they experienced both before coming here and as refugees. About 12 years ago, my interest in children’s rights to care and protection led me into the issues of asylum-seeking children. I was involved in some of the earliest work at the Woomera and Baxter detention centres in South Australia.
There were very high rates of distress and mental disorder. The government, sadly, has gone back to the detention of children. My personal view is that the profession has an absolute moral and ethical duty to speak out about bad policy. Many of us are finding the current situation quite distressing, but a pleasing thing is the number of medical students and young people who are interested.
The psychiatrists involved in this work were maybe naïve at the beginning of this, 10 years ago. We thought surely if we spoke out and pointed out the damage that was being done to people, then the system would change. It took a lot of fighting to get any change, which was confronting. As doctors, we expect that our advice is listened to.
I chair an independent advisory group — the Detention Expert Health Advisory Group for the Department of Immigration and Citizenship — and we are deeply concerned about what is happening. This is not just psychiatrists. This is physicians, paediatricians and a whole range of health professionals who are all deeply concerned. We’ve found over the years that we need to meet regularly to discuss these issues, to give each other support. We have formed close relationships, which is essential. It’s not the sort of work you can do alone. I think it absolutely inadvisable to do so.”

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