Mulgrave Blue Tree spreading the paint and spreading the message

MYzone students place handprints on Blue Tree

A lone tree in Mulgrave suddenly changed colour recently, but it was all for a great cause.

The tree, painted a striking shade of blue as part of the Blue Tree Project, is a visual conversation-starter designed to spark discussion about mental health and its impacts.

Improving mental health is a key priority of Council’s Health and Wellbeing Plan.

Initially starting in Western Australia, the Blue Tree Project has grown to become a national initiative, using dead trees painted blue to raise awareness of the mental health cause: By spreading the paint and spreading the message that "it’s OK to not be OK", we can help break down the stigma that’s still largely attached to mental health.

Only dead trees are painted as part of the project, not as a symbol of those who have been lost, but in line with the story of the original blue tree.

Monash’s involvement in the Blue Tree Project came by pure chance when Fee Harrison, Manager Community Strengthening, was on a long service leave road trip through the Western Australian outback and came across a number of brightly painted blue trees.

“So, I looked it up, thank goodness for Google in the car, and (after visiting the very first blue tree at Mukinbudin) the message really resonated with me. The narrative, the story that goes with it,” Fee said.

“I started engaging in conversation on my social media and said, ‘right, when I get home, I want a blue tree’. Let’s hook it into the mental health work we do … to be a conversation starter. It gives us a focal point for all our mental health work and events, like 'R U OK? Day.”

Upon returning to Monash and pitching the idea, Fee said she received instant and enthusiastic support from Russell Hopkins, Director Community Services, and Dr Andi Diamond, Chief Executive Officer, as well as outgoing Monash Mayor Stuart James, who was particularly passionate about mental health issues.

Fee said that the project had struck a chord and “blue trees were popping up everywhere” throughout Australia and overseas. With the current count at 901 trees, the project has spread internationally as far afield as Indonesia, New Zealand, United Kingdom, Germany, South Africa, Argentina, Canada and the USA.

Monash’s blue tree is near the entrance to the Southern Community Centre in Mulgrave. The tree was carefully selected as it was dead but not hazardous and located in close proximity to a Council building where a range of community groups meet on-site, maximising opportunities for conversations.

The tree was initially painted in the project’s signature blue colour. Handprints, in a lighter blue, were then added by MYzone participants after the unveiling of the tree’s information sign by Mayor Stuart James on Thursday 27 October 2022.

MYzone, a Monash Youth Services program for young people aged 8-13, meets weekly at the Southern Community Centre and offers participants a social space that is supportive, supervised and safe, where they can have fun, learn skills and meet new people.

Youth worker Jules Ewert, who worked with the MYzone participants on their contribution to the Monash Blue Tree, said she was delighted with how it had worked out, despite Melbourne’s uncooperative October/November weather.

Jules said that Monash is in a unique position, offering a program to a younger cohort of participants. They are at a great age to start conversations around mental health and to help them develop an attitude that it’s better to talk about problems and seek help than it is to keep them bottled-up.

“While it is important to discuss mental health across all age groups,” Jules said. “It really was an opportunity to do more in the primary prevention space with this group.

“Obviously we didn’t cover the really heavy stuff (serious mental illness), we approached the subject using age-appropriate language and themes.

“We’d talked about how it’s OK to not be OK and it’s OK to talk to a friend. We also asked them ‘who are the safe people (trusted adults) in your life that you can talk to?’

“And, for the most part, we had really good engagement and fruitful conversations”.

Most importantly, the gnarled blue skeleton, and the information sign that stands in front of it in support, are striking reminders that you are never alone.

“This blue tree echoes the message that we all have blue days providing those dealing with mental illness reassurance that they are not alone, and that help is available.”

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