Congratulations Professor Shane Thomas who has won the President’s Award for Distinguished Contribution to Psychology in Australia. Thomas is the first researcher from ANU to be awarded this honour by the Australian Psychological Society, which recognises his contribution to psychology and the Australian community as a whole.
As an outstanding ambassador to the field of psychology, Thomas has dedicated his career to researching and designing programs aimed at improving the lives of disadvantaged people, with particular focus on the treatment of problem gambling and the management of chronic health conditions. Thomas also conducted pioneering work to establish mental health issues as a legitimate reason for Disability Support Pension support. This innovation has benefited many thousands of Australian disability pension holders and their families.
We chatted to Thomas about his work in mental health and problem gambling, and his role mentoring the next generation of psychologists.
How has health policy with regard to mental health changed throughout your career?
Early on there was somewhat of a perceptual hierarchy between the two, with "physical" illness being a higher priority than mental illness. Of course we now understand that they are inextricably linked, and government has decided to invest more equitably into mental health now. This is a work in progress. I think the link is much stronger than some imagine.
You have published extensively on the psychology of problem gambling. What drew you to this line of research?
I am interested in behavioural addictions. Especially ones where if you are not afflicted they are hard to understand because they are so obviously not in the interests of the people who are afflicted. They also affect many people around them; friends, family and workmates. Also in my professional and personal interactions there is a surprisingly large number of people who need assistance.
How has the translation of this gambling research into policy and action changed the lives of many Australians?
It has been a global impact because most countries are experiencing the same issues. Some of the myths with problem gambling are that it is hard to treat, and that the relapse rates are very high. Our research shows that a six session treatment program halves spend, halves the hours spent doing it and moves many patients out of severe diagnostic criteria into a less serious condition or no condition. Also, we have found that the treatment effects are durable for most patients. In this field, as in others, “ugly facts” frequently defeat beautiful prejudices. Our team's work has impacted upon the treatments undertaken by problem gamblers globally.
You have supervised over 50 PhD students over the years. Why is mentoring the next generation of mental health leaders so important to you?
Students want to succeed in their studies and it is our responsibility to ensure that happens. If you want to impact a field and improve the human condition, it is your students who will do most of it. So having lots of good ones is smart. Also it is fun working with smart determined people.
** The President's Award for Distinguished Contribution to Psychology in Australia recognises notable contributions to psychology in Australia, and must have made a difference to psychology and the Australian community as a whole.