James Packer donates $7 million to UNSW to help expand mental health research

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James Packer will donate $7 million to the University of NSW to expand mental health research and establish a group of new academic positions within the medicine faculty.

The gift from the former casino mogul comes on the back of a record philanthropic year for the university, which raised $81.2 million in donations in 2022.

James Packer, pictured in 2017, said it was “no secret” he had previously struggled with mental health problems.Credit: Getty

UNSW chancellor David Gonski said the endowment would accelerate mental health research at the university by funding a new professorial chair position that would lead a research team focusing on mood disorders and bipolar disease.

“The significance of the donation is enormous, and it is a critical time for these roles to be set up in the area of psychiatric research,” Gonski said.

Packer said it was “no secret” he had previously struggled with mental health problems, adding, “I am a passionate advocate of finding ways to improve mental health outcomes.

“I am hopeful that my contribution towards this research will generate positive outcomes in this field and in so doing significantly improve the lives of people battling mental health issues both in Australia and around the world.”

The University of NSW had a record philanthropic year, raising $81.2 million in donations in 2022.Credit: Ryan Stuart 

The professorial position, which will be jointly funded by the Packer Family Foundation, will be supported by a group of postdoctoral researchers who will examine the prevention and treatment of mood disorders. The team will set up a new unit within the university’s psychiatry and mental health discipline, which has about 200 researchers working across the Kensington campus and at hospitals and other healthcare sites.

In late 2020, Packer revealed in his evidence to the Independent Liquor and Gaming Authority in NSW that he had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder. The billionaire resigned from the board of Crown Resorts in March 2018, citing mental health reasons.

UNSW vice chancellor Attila Brungs said the endowment would support collaborative research and help develop new treatments.

“Research changes people’s lives. We appreciate James Packer’s generous donation, which will enable UNSW researchers to develop new treatments and interventions for people experiencing mental health disorders. Mental health is a pressing global challenge, and this gift will help us make real progress in this area,” Brungs said.

Philanthropic gifts to the university increased last year, rising from $74.5 million in 2021.

Philanthropic donations to Australian universities have been rising over the past decade. In 2019, another top institution, the University of Sydney, hit its target of $1 billion worth of donations after a major fundraising drive over 10 years.

“Only 15 years ago the amount of money raised through donations was a fraction of what we are seeing now,” Gonski said.

Andrew Norton, professor in the practice of higher education policy at Australian National University, said “overall philanthropy is still small percentage of overall university income”.

“Donations are often used to fund scholarships, or particular research projects, but it’s really the icing on the cake.”

Donations and bequests received across Australian universities in 2021 totalled $489 million, or about 1.3 per cent of all university revenue.

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