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Mental health campaigner Patrick McGorry has withdrawn from speaking at a function for a new community group that has highlighted the “shadow pandemic” of poor mental health among children after he became aware of its ties to the Liberal Party.
One of the key organisers of Shadow Pandemic Victoria, Jacquie Blackwell, is the unpaid vice-chair of the party’s Higgins branch, which takes in the affluent suburbs of Armadale, Prahran and Toorak.
The group recently encouraged Victorian families to leave their schoolbags out the front of their house.Credit:Michele Mossop
Her husband is Richard Murray, who chairs one of the Liberal Party’s chief fundraising arms, the Higgins 200 club, and is a former JB Hi-Fi chief executive and the new chief executive of Premier Investments.
Ms Blackwell said the group was not motivated by advancing the interests of any political party, but its loose Liberal Party links prompted Professor McGorry, a psychiatrist and former Australian of the Year, to withdraw from speaking at an upcoming event hosted by Shadow Pandemic Victoria. The event, which was set to feature an independent school principal and other academics, was cancelled on Wednesday afternoon.
Professor McGorry said while many of the group’s concerns were legitimate he did not want to be “drawn into any controversy about which side of politics is holier than the other”.
Professor McGorry, who popularised the term “shadow pandemic” in Australia, said he did not want to be perceived as “being associated with the politicisation of this issue”.
Former JB Hi-Fi chief executive Richard Murray chairs one of the Liberal Party’s chief fundraising arms, the Higgins 200 club.Credit:Eamon Gallagher
“I want to keep mental health a bipartisan issue. I have spent 20 years working successfully with both sides of politics.”
Ms Blackwell’s group, which describes itself as “a group of mums speaking out for the shadow pandemic crippling our children”, emerged in mid-August amid widespread media coverage of the burden of the lockdown and home-schooling on children. Its genesis was a conversation between concerned inner-eastern suburbs school mothers on their daily walk who created a WhatsApp group which quickly amassed hundreds of members.
It has since gained almost 18,000 followers on its Instagram page, more than 20,000 people have signed its petition calling for a plan for schools to urgently reopen – a position that aligns with the state Liberal Party – and it has featured in reports from the ABC, Channel Seven and the Herald Sun.
Ms Blackwell said she was not motivated by politics and argued the group was valuable because “kids don’t have unions – they have mums”.
“We aren’t anti-vaxxer, anti-lockdown or anti-government,” she said. “We supported the lockdowns last year, but we want a plan for schools to go back and experts to be consulted.”
“Kid are losing their spark. They have missed so much school; that’s socialising, sport, education … We don’t have answers for them anymore when they ask what date they’re going back.
“We’re a random bunch of mothers who got together and focussed on mental health. This grew bigger than we thought very, very quickly and it’s got momentum.”
She said “hideous” personal attacks on members of the group had prompted the cancellation of Thursday’s event.
Education and child mental health experts have warned that repeated periods of remote learning are inflicting cumulative harm on children. Calls to Kids Helpline rose 30 per cent in Victoria in the first six months of 2021 compared with the first six months of 2020, while figures recently published in The Australian show an average of 156 teenagers a week were rushed to hospital after self-harming and suffering suicidal ideation, up 88 per cent from last year.
Influencer Rozalia Russian has promoted Shadow Pandemic Victoria on Instagram.Credit:Instagram
The group’s first campaign encouraged families to place their school bags outside their homes and post images to social media. It is also linked to the #VCEWhatsThePlanDan group that has recently begun contacting media organisations and providing commentary from doctors on the state government’s policy on school closures.
Influencers including Rozalia Russian, whose husband Nick Russian unsuccessfully ran on an unofficial Liberal party ticket for lord mayor last year, Nadia Bartel and Rebecca Judd have recently promoted Shadow Pandemic Victoria on their Instagram accounts. Judd landed in hot water last year after she referred to Premier Daniel Andrews as “Dictator Dan” on her Instagram account.
The group recently shared a tweet from Victorian Liberal MP and former opposition leader Matthew Guy, who said he was fed up with the government telling him that home-schooling was “somehow ‘good for kids’ and they ‘should learn to enjoy it’“.
Multiple state Liberal and crossbench MPs have contacted Ms Blackwell’s group in the hopes of collaborating. The group has declined these approaches in order to avoid a perception that it is aligned to a party.
Data from Google Trend shows interest in the phrase “shadow pandemic” is isolated to Victoria and peaked on the weekend of August 24.
The group has rallied against the government’s playground ban, which was the lockdown measure that arguably generated the most negative media attention. The Andrews government overturned the ban on Wednesday despite recording the highest number of daily cases in more than a year.
If you or anyone you know needs support call Kidshelpline 1800 55 1800 or Lifeline 131 114.
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