Australia 21 Director and Fellow Richard Eckersley’s report, Never better — or getting worse? The health and wellbeing of young Australians — was launched at a public lecture given by Richard at the Australian National University in September 2008. The report served several purposes: to review the evidence over the past twenty years since his first report on youth, Casualties of change, was published by the Commission for the Future; to analyse the many ambiguities and contradictions in this evidence; to highlight the growing importance of non-fatal, chronic illness, especially mental disorders; and to challenge the dominant view that young people are healthier than ever before.
The report attracted good media coverage and professional attention, including invitations to Richard to address several state and national conferences of state and independent schools. Over the past year, Richard has also extended this work to explore population health and wellbeing more broadly.
He has published papers in the journal, Social Indicators Research, and an OECD newsletter, Measuring the progress of societies, that contest the orthodoxy that Western liberal democracies represent the leading edge of human progress and development, as suggested by commonly used indicators. He argues that life expectancy is not a valid measure of overall health; happiness may not be comparable across cultures and does not, in any case, cover all the attributes of healthy people or societies; and other common measures such as income, education, governance and human rights, being mainly structural and institutional, do not adequately reflect the cultural and moral qualities that shape the more intimate aspects of life, and so are central to health and wellbeing.
Richard also contributed an item on this topic to Australia 21’s Next Big Question project (for details of this project see The Next Big Question).
Another application of this work was an essay in the Australia 21 publication, Brighter prospects: enhancing the resilience of Australia, in which Richard proposed that the health of a population was a critical dimension of the resilience of a society, being not only a consequence but also a cause of national and global developments. If people are getting ‘sicker and sadder’, this not only weakens the confidence and resolve they need to face and overcome threats and adversities, it can also increase the risk that they will respond inappropriately — even in ways that make the situation worse.