From depression and suicide in elite athletes to male and female sexual dysfunction or the stress and anxiety experienced by patients with chronic disease, health psychology’s myriad applications have proven to be an absorbing area of study for Associate Professor Frances Quirk.
Whether it’s advising young people on sexual issues through her weekly newspaper column, training health professionals to diagnose and assess sexual dysfunction, lecturing medicine and psychology students in mental health or supervising a PhD student identifying verbal signposts for male depression in rural communities, Associate Professor Quirk believes health psychology is an important and fundamental part of health care.
It’s a relatively new discipline in Australia, but more established in the UK where Prof Quirk graduated with a degree in Psychology from the University of London, “completely hooked” on the potential of integrating physical and mental health indicators for this holistic approach and response to a broad range of disorders.
“There’s a slow movement world-wide towards what I would call whole body medicine or whole body health where health professionals are much more sensitive to the interaction between bio-psycho-social factors and how they significantly influence outcomes for patients,” Associate Professor Quirk says.
But the “slow movement” is beginning to accelerate as the financial cost of chronic disease impacts on government health budgets in western and developed countries.
“Most of those chronic diseases are a result of behaviour,” Associate Professor Quirk says, “so if you’re not taking the behaviour into account then you’re not able to adequately address some of the consequences that are now resulting in massive health costs,” she says.
Before coming to Australia, Associate Professor Quirk was a member of a WHO Consensus Conference on Sexual Dysfunction in 2003. She developed and produced two measures to assess sexual function in women and men. The Sexual Function Questionnaire, which specifically addresses female sexual function, is included in the most recent publication of the American Textbook of Psychiatric Measures. Before arriving at JCU she worked for Pfizer Research and Development on the Viagra female sexual dysfunction program.
Since her return to academic life, “the quality of life umbrella sits over most of what I do,” she says.
That umbrella is definitely an expansive one with her current research interests including gender differences in sexual desire and its impact on longer term relationships, the effect of excess weight and obesity on sexual function and she is also identifying indicators that show an increased risk of doping policy non-compliance in athletes.
The opportunities for Postgraduate research are equally wide-ranging. Recent student research includes a study of the increased risk of suicide in elite athletes and another has identified language used by rural men in crisis, leading to requests for training material from organisations across the country, including Lifeline.
“From a university perspective, research that evidences impact is quality research,” Associate Professor Quirk says.
Other potential research areas in the region where students can make a real contribution are gender differences in mental health, which also relates to mental health in rural and regional areas and mental health in adolescents and young people. Associate Professor Quirk believes this is a huge area that is under-served in terms of health care provision, assessment and intervention.
“I like to think about research that can make a difference,” Associate Professor Quirk says.
“It’s about identifying a knowledge gap or a gap in health care provision and coming up with something that will fill that gap. It’s all about translational research. You’ve done the work, now how does it translate into benefits? For me the real buzz is when a significant segment of the population is going to benefit.”