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From a young age, Professor Alison Jones saw the role inequity played in people’s health and wellbeing. Propelled by social justice, she’s working to reduce youth suicide rates and create a healthier future for everyone.

F ew people would say their ultimate goal is to render themselves unemployed. But as a clinical toxicologist, Professor Alison Jones says that is what her work is all about.

Most recently, the opening of the Mental Illness in Nowra District-Goals and Prevention (MIND the GaP) facility, was a team achievement that brought her one step closer to that aim.

Professor Alison Jones on campus at UOW in Wollongong.

Social justice is what fuels Professor Alison Jones to work with communities towards better health and wellbeing. Photo: Paul Jones

“I began my journey as a clinical toxicologist and sadly one of my roles is to see young people every single week who have self-harmed,” she says. “It is such a privilege to be working with the community to reduce the number of people we see at hospital with self-harm and that’s one of the key goals of this work – to render me unemployed as a clinical toxicologist.”

Professor Jones is the Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Health and Communities) and Executive Dean of the Faculty of Science, Medicine and Health at the University of Wollongong.

Beyond her work on the clinical frontline as a toxicologist and general physician, one of her key roles is to oversee the University’s Health and Wellbeing Strategy, which aims to make a real and lasting impact in communities. At the heart of what she does is social justice, which has been her motivation from a young age – since she has deep connects to Welsh mining roots.

Access to medical care should not be dependent on one’s ability to pay or where you live and I felt the need to do something about that.

Professor Alison Jones

“I remember my grandmother talking about a half shilling left on the mantelpiece for the doctor (GP) prior to the introduction of the NHS [National Health Service],” Prof Jones told UOW Outlook Magazine.

“You could lose a child to pneumonia or other treatable illnesses for want of a half-shilling – the equivalent of two and a half pence – to pay for a doctor.

“The unacceptable nature of that and other childhood experiences has given me a deep commitment to social justice that I think is important in everything I do.

“I told myself and my family early on that access to medical care should not be dependent on one’s ability to pay or where you live and I felt the need to do something about that.”

Now an internationally recognised and research-active toxicologist and physician, Professor Jones serves on a wide variety of expert advisory groups and provides advice to State and Commonwealth government departments.

The risk of a mental health episode in a lifetime is about 40 per cent for every one of us.

Professor Alison Jones

Surrounded by a strong team, Professor Jones says each pillar of the Health and Wellbeing Strategy is successfully unfolding and already making a difference, particularly in regional communities.

“Our successful UOW Health and Wellbeing Strategy has been founded on engaging with rural and regional communities to help meet unmet needs in partnership with others wherever we can,” she says.

The strategy has led to the University partnering with local communities to tackle high youth suicide rates; expand nursing training for our ageing population; train GPs and specialists in regional and remote communities; and establish a preventative, and allied health and research facility. It’s also equipping the University and its researchers to confront the world’s biggest health challenges with Molecular Horizons – UOW’s largest ever self-funded research infrastructure investment.

All-in-all the strategy includes the Mental Illness in Nowra District-Goals and Prevention (MIND the GaP) facility at UOW’s Shoalhaven Campus; Nursing training facilities at Bega and Western Sydney; a Health and Wellbeing Precinct at UOW’s Innovation Campus; rural training pathways and the Regional Training Hub to improve quality of care in for patients in country hospitals; and the Molecular Horizons: UOW’s Centre for Molecular and Life Sciences which is currently under construction at the Wollongong campus.

In tackling high youth suicide rates, Professor Jones says a key difference with the recently completed MIND the GaP facility is its grassroots approach.

“Instead of a more traditional model of a university saying to community that we have particular research ideas and would the community like to take part, we’ve flipped the model the other way around. We’ve said to community, what are your ideas for reducing youth suicide? What are your ideas for building up community resilience? Then we work with community to investigate what works, and perhaps what doesn’t work,” she says.

The newly built MIND the GaP Facility, now open in Nowra.

The MIND the GaP Facility in Nowra has been established to create better mental health outcomes. Photo: Paul Jones

“I think this is an absolutely beautiful way of working with the community to solve regional challenges. I think this model may well be generalisable to other regional and rural communities across Australia and beyond.”

Professor Jones says the various projects align perfectly with her vision of healthier communities with greater access to essential services.

“Social justice is absolutely built into Wollongong’s DNA – we have that importance of community and that’s where Wollongong really works,” she says.

“We’re grounded in reality, but we’ve got ambitions that are truly global.”

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