Known for her cutting edge research in the field of psychiatry, a look at how Professor Jayashri Kulkarni is changing peoples’ lives.

Professor Jayshri Kulkarni’s dreams of being a rock star came to an end with one gig as a bass guitarist in a ‘really bad band’ where they played Deep Purple’s Smoke on the Water. So ‘hideous’ was the version that they got booed off stage, she says. But if the doors to one career closed, another one opened to make her a luminary in the field. Today Professor Kulkarni is globally recognised for her expertise in the treatment of mental illness, particularly in women’s mental health. Among her many achievements, one is that she pioneered the use of estrogen as a treatment in schizophrenia. More on that later.

Born in Bijapur, Karnataka, Professor Kulkarni was only three years old and her brother six months when her parents decided to come to Australia in 1961. Her father, an atmospheric physicist, was invited by the CISRO to set up an ozone research program. “It is his work which talks about the impact of carbons and environmental issues on the depletion of the ozone layer,” she reflects. But what was supposed to be a two-year assignment became an indefinite stay as her father “was doing so well at work”. Gradually her mother took up teaching science in a high school. Her mother, she says, was embraced by the local women’s organisations who took a positive curiosity in her as she would give talks to the community and run cooking classes. But the “pioneering experiences” of her parents contributed to the making of a very happy childhood memories.

And if her parents had plenty of resilience, it was something she would imbibe fully in life. “I think my parents had the right attitude. They were warned against coming here by my extended family in India because Australia still had the White Policy in 1961 and they feared we would not be accepted. But it was the opposite when we came here.”

Professor Kulkarni attended the Parkdale Primary School and later the Kilvington Girls’ Grammar school. The signs of becoming a doctor were there since then. She remembers playing with a kid in school who fell and skinned her knee. “I took her to the basin, washed her knee and took her into the teacher, who said ‘That’s a very good job, maybe you should become doctor when you grow up’.

She went on to Monash University to study medicine but became interested in psychiatry from the early days of school. Post her degree, she did a lot of emergency medicine but went back to psychiatry. “What interested me was the treatment diagnosis for women as a particular group in psychiatry. When I was doing my training I saw that women were not actually given special consideration for some of the different factors that they deal with; hormones are part of that but also things such as relationships, mothering, violence in marriage – all these are particular issues for women’s mental health.”

So she took up research in women’s mental health and did her PhD in Women and Psychosis.  She conducted her first oestrogen trial in 1992 and published the results in 1994. It was the first time oestrogen was used as a treatment for psychosis. She expanded the program to look at the impact of reproductive hormones – oestrogen and progesterone – on all kinds of mental-state changes: “Started with schizophrenia, have moved into depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and borderline personality disorder and some of the other conditions.”

Along the way she realised the need to have a research centre. That led her to setting up the Psychiatry Research Centre in Dandenong hospital in 1994 where she was director of the clinical services. Eight years later she established the Monash Alfred Psychiatry Research Centre (MAPrc), and is its director. At MAPrc, Professor Kulkarni conducts psychiatry research and directs Australia’s largest clinical research centre in psychiatry. “We have 180-plus staff and students and have set ourselves the goals of developing new treatments, new understanding and new services for people with mental illnesses.” There are 128 projects running at MAPrc and so it is very busy, she adds.

So, all along she kept her area of research in the field of women’s mental health. As part of that she noticed that women on the in-patient psychiatry units were managed alongside male patients leading to some difficulties. “With disinhibited behaviour due to drugs and other things male patients, particularly, can become aggressive. I thought one of the solutions is to separate men and women. I managed to keep bothering various state governments and lobbying and so on and finally we could have funding.” The persistence paid off. In October 2010 she launched the Women’s Mental Health Clinic at the Alfred Hospital. Since then the clinic has expanded and the demand for appointments is at an all-time high. “The clinic offers women second opinion appointments by a team of experienced consultants who have expert knowledge in the area of women’s mental health. Following an in-depth consultation between the women and our medical professionals, a management plan is provided to the women and her treating team including new treatment approaches and the latest research findings to educate.”

Currently, she is also working on domestic violence and looking at family violence. Part of the project will be looking at the Indian community as well.  “One of the issues about Indian culture is the attitude towards women,” she rues.  But again, this is an issue that all cultures face and there needs to be a generational shift she believes. “Sometimes what can happen with migrants is that they can remain frozen in time. So for example, you can have a situation where those who migrated in the 1990s or 80s would not have caught up with what is happening in India. So they will have the view of India as what they grew up with. And if there have been shifts in mindsets about gender equality, that generation of migrants may not have caught up with that.  We have a very important role to educate people. Men and women are different but equal. And raising children needs to be in that atmosphere of equal roles and equal responsibilities too.”

She feels it is Important to get this message across to the Indian community in particular that for some reason sees women as inferior and the birth of a girl child not celebrated in some parts. “We somehow need to get across that housework is everybody’s business. Childcare is the job of both parents. It’s almost like saying to mothers you need to educate your sons to be independent to be able to do everything for themselves because they will otherwise not have the skills to exist in the Australian workforce or in Australian family life. I think there is some work to be done.”

As a second generation Australian Indian, Professor Kulkarni understands the issues that children of migrants face.  “There is a whole lot of different challenges that come up for people trying to navigate both the culture, religion, and way of life of both the parents as well as trying to negotiate fitting in here and the challenges thereof.”  While some might say that it is terrible being caught in two cultures, she thinks it is fantastic because you can pick and choose. “There are some things that I find very difficult about Indian culture and there are some things that I find difficult about Australian culture. So you can avoid those things and you get to have this wonderful amalgam.”

With many of her extended family still back in India, Professor Kulkarni has always maintained her ties with her roots. Over the past 10-15 years, she has observed the rapid changes which give her pride of her Indian origin. “In the 1960s and even 70s, Australians didn’t understand a lot about India as a nation and I think they would have a negative view but it is interesting to see the shift that has occurred in perception. Now there are so much demand to try and attempt to have business connections between Australia and India.” With her parents having instilled in her a great love and pride of her Indian origins “in no circumstances would we allow any negative comments to be passed. We would always challenge those. “

Growing up in the 1960s in Australia, her family was part of a miniscule Indian population but she says it was full of positive experiences. She recalls knowing just three families. Now as the community has grown, there are plusses and minuses. “You experiment and look at what is now your new culture but then you don’t give up what you were born with and your origins.”

In 2011, Professor Kulkarni was inducted into the Victorian Honour Roll of women. The Honour Roll recognises the achievements of women from Victoria. As part of the roll, she is also trying to encourage people to nominate themselves or others. “It is important that we do this. You will find that a lot of award systems are as a result of male networks, I think it is important that we have female networks as well. And obviously both genders interacting together is a good idea too.”

Professor Kulkarni has raised the profile of mental illness in the media and contributed to ‘destigmatising’ the subject. She currently presents on the ABC, on 3AW’s Talking Health program and other radio and television programs. She has convened and organised many successful conferences including the Third International Congress on Women’s Mental Health, held in Melbourne in 2008. In 2010 she with colleague Brian Lithgow, won the ABC New Inventors Grand Final for a biomarker device to diagnose mental illness. She also received the Australasian Society for Psychiatry Research Award in 2005, in recognition of her research in women’s mental health.

But none of the accolades are more important for her that getting something tangible done. Watching patients receiving positive outcomes out of the treatment is a gratifying experience for her. “Getting patient’s safety improved for women in the wards was just as important as awards. If we can get the domestic violence conference which is coming up in October to have some outcomes – that’s what I really live for.” At the Women’s Mental Health Clinic that she runs every Thursdays, she looks at the number of different treatments and “we go around high fiving each other when we get good results, when we see somebody who has been so sick with depression or some other debilitating mental illness has her health improve. It is just fantastic.”

Interestingly, Professor Kulkarni wears many hats. As a Club Melbourne member, she is an ambassador for Melbourne city. It is a Victorian government program that invites people to become ambassadors to entice more business, conferences and visitors into the city. As a mother of two young girls – one a lawyer and the other a university student – she says any working mother has to juggle. “But the things that I have been very fortunate about are that my husband and I have been equal partners.”

Life for this passionate professor is guided by the dictum: Live your life to excess in every way – bite off far more than you can chew, chew furiously and try not to gag. We take her words at face value!

By Indira Laisram