Interview with Dr Mark Cross – Psychiatrist and TV Personality

Man smiling at camera

Dr Mark moved to Sydney in 2005, initially as Director of Consultation/Liaison Psychiatry at Liverpool Hospital, in 2006 he was appointed Clinical Director of Psychiatry at Liverpool Hospital until October 2014. He then moved to the Sydney South West Local Health District to Campbelltown Hospital as the Senior Psychiatrist running the only Youth Ward (Public) in NSW-Birunji and MacArthur Youth team.

He now runs a Private Practice at Northside MacArthur Clinic in Campbelltown and Northside Cremorne and is a Senior Lecturer at University of New South Wales (UNSW). He was awarded a teaching award by the school of Psychiatry at UNSW in 2014 and was the Senior Clinical Lead and one of the developers of the TV series ‘Changing Minds’, the 1st series broadcast in October 2014, the 2nd series was aired on the ABC on the 6-8th October 2015, as part of the ABC’s “Mental As” week.

He is currently a board member of SANE Australia – National Mental Health Charity and was awarded the NSW RANZCP Meritorious award in 2015 for his “significant contribution to Psychiatry”. He was also a recipient of a 2015 NSW Premiers Awards for service to Public Health.

We sat down to talk with Dr Mark Cross, MBChB (Cape Town), MRCPsych (UK), FRANZCP, who is a Psychiatrist with a background of medical training in South Africa. He worked in Specialist Training and consulting in England and in Australia, specialising in Adult General Psychiatry and Consultation/Liaison, specifically HIV.

We talk with him about growing up in South Africa, how his passion for Psychiatry began, his TV Show ‘Changing Minds’, the stigma behind Mental illness and how he manages his work-life balance.

HCA: You grew up in South Africa and moved to London, what was the main reason you moved to Australia? 

Dr Mark Cross: I specialised in London, United Kingdom (UK), however, I graduated in South Africa and did my internship and house officer job in a Hospital where they opened the ward to people of colour for the first time in 1992. I worked in the Psychiatry Ward where my supervisor was 300 miles away, so I learnt from the Nurses and that’s how I became quite practical. I worked there for a year and then I went to London in 1993 where I specialised and worked as a Consultant Psychiatrist from 2001 to 2005.

What made me move to Australia was probably a mid-life crisis. I love London, but my partner and I decided we wanted to just have one more move. Moving to Australia gave us a feeling of being closer to South Africa.

HCA: What motivated you to become a Psychiatrist?

Dr Mark Cross: I was always interested in Psychiatry, but I quite enjoyed Obstetrics and Gynaecology, delivering 500 babies over my career, but I always knew Psychiatry was the profession for me.

HCA: How did the opportunity for your TV show ‘Changing Minds’ come about and why did you create a show based on mental illness?

Dr Mark Cross: My best friend who I’ve known for 25 years was diagnosed with throat cancer back in 2012 and had a Psychotic episode on Christmas Eve. We’d been talking for some time about doing a TV show, but after her episode, it made us even more motivated to create this show. We discussed things in 2013, got approval between September and November of that year and started filming in March 2014.  It was all pretty quick, and I wouldn’t have done it if it wasn’t for her, because that’s about putting myself on the line and essentially allowing people to come into my private world with my patients. Suddenly I got 18 radio interviews, 2 TV interview and 6 print interviews prior to ‘Changing Minds’ even coming out. Nobody even knew what it was, so it was pretty anxiety-provoking. But then it did so phenomenally well.

HCA: If you could get one message across to the public about mental illness what would that be?

Dr Mark Cross: That mental health is not scary and it shouldn’t frighten you. I’ve got a big thing about stigma and mental health, it is important to empower people and show that even those with severe mental illness are just that; people, human beings.  And if you treat them properly then they respond.

HCA: How can we help increase awareness of mental health issues affecting Doctors and medical students?

Dr Mark Cross: Recently in the UK, a woman GP committed suicide that had been battling Bipolar disease, and in my opinion, she wasn’t treated well by the governing bodies. We need to take a long look at ourselves and how we govern ourselves – I’m talking about Medical Councils and the Medical Board. We need to be very supporting and not stigmatising, because as more Doctors come through with mental illness, then more people will see that it’s normal…I hate that word …that it’s normalising, and it affects everyone and anyone.  I think we should make it very easy, or much easier than it is currently for Doctors to step forward and be open, because otherwise what do we do? We hide.  Female doctors are at the highest risk of suicide in our profession. Statistically, more than men, even though men generally are statistically more likely to kill themselves. Of the 3,027 people who suicided in Australia last year 75% were men – it’s a dreadful statistic. Coming back to medicine, we have high levels of stress, high levels of relationship problems, drug and alcohol abuse and of course, stress leads to illness.

HCA: What are your top tips for Doctors wanting to relax away from work?

Dr Mark Cross: We need to be aware of work/life balance.  I know that it seems to be a little catchphrase now, but it’s a very important one.  We all need our own ways of coping with stress because we take on stress from our patients. That makes us caring, empathic clinicians.  We must look after ourselves as well.  That’s why I’m going away for 3 weeks tomorrow.

HCA: What are the current issues with work life/balance and what advice would you give to Doctors?

Dr Mark Cross: The common issue is an on-call commitment that comes with a lot of our work. But even with that, you must stick to boundaries.  So, share the on-call load so when you’re not on-call be very clear about not taking calls – people can cope.  I don’t give my mobile number out to my patients and I’m not always available, I’m available to a certain point.  And that’s very good for my mental health.  I take leave, I exercise, I try to diet properly and I spend time with my family.  It is vitally important to be able to separate or compartmentalise at times. That doesn’t mean that you’re not a caring Doctor.

HCA: Are there any signs that employers or family can look out for if they feel their loved one might be suffering from mental illness? 

Dr Mark Cross:  If the person’s not coming to talk to you. As a loved one, or as a carer, or whatever your relationship is to the person, the first sign is usually a behavioural change, so the person becomes quiet, they become more withdrawn.  Whatever is normal for them, if there’s a shift in that then that’s often the first sign and one to look out for.

HCA: Do you think the Australian society will be able to overcome the stigma of mental health in the next 5 years?

Dr Mark Cross: When we get things right in Australia and I’m proud to be Australian now and we truly look at the value of mateship and being supportive of each other, which a fundamental part of being Australian, we can do it then.  There’s still a lot of stigmas, a lot of people, unfortunately, who are willfully ignorant, and that’s irritating. For instance, we’ve got to get men to be more involved in their health, we have to look at things in a different way, we can’t just say to men ‘oh come and see us’; how can we change the profession to enable men to feel more comfortable coming to see us? I think that’s sort of part of what you asked, but it’s about changing that whole ‘machismo’ thing and that weak/strong debate, which I can’t stand.  It takes a lot of guts to admit to being ill and that’s the first step sometimes.

If you would like more information on mental health, you can watch Changing Minds: The Inside Story on ABC or you can purchase Changing Minds: The Go-To Guide to Mental Health for you, family and friends (ABC Books, $29.99) is Dr Cross’s latest project, a book co-written with Dr Catherine Hanrahan, a researcher from the television series that is full of practical advice and information for anyone dealing with mental health.

If you’re considering coming on board with HCA Doctors as a Physiatrist, then contact us by emailing Doctors@healthcareaustralia.com.au or calling 1300 889 133.