In the Media

Robert Burke Obituary

Automotive engineer, disabilities campaigner

Born: June 27, 1939; Wudinna

Died: May 13, 2017; Adelaide

Education: Brighton and Darwin high schools, University of Adelaide

Achievements: Advocacy in mental health, quality control in engine manufacturing

Family: Survived by Judy, children Melinda and Kerry and two grandchildren.

“ROBERT Burke, Daw Park,” has long been one of keenest correspondents in The Advertiser’s letters to the editor columns.

His pithy writing style, where his last letter compared losing one’s marbles with losing “a couple of similarly shaped and more important appendages” enlivened the letters for many years.

That last letter was published just a week before his sudden death, but Bob’s contributions to South Australia were considerably more substantial than that.

Last year he was awarded the Margaret Tobin Award, the main award in the Mental Health industry in South Australia.

He took up mental health advocacy because of the mood disorders of his and Judy’s first-born, Melinda. In 1997 they had become members of the Mood Disorder Carer’s Group, but Bob came to influence the whole approach to mood disorders in SA.

He and Judy knew their child Melinda was mildly intellectually disabled, but from the age of eight she was affected by depression. It became more pronounced and there were to be many attempted suicides and episodes of self-harm.

Bob and Judy sought the help of psychiatry but found little help or understanding of their daughter’s condition from many in the profession.

With Bob helping to drive the Mood Disorders Association and taking leadership roles there, it gradually organised itself into a more substantial organisation before merging with the Mental Health Fellowship SA to form the present MHFSA, with Bob as its vice president until 2007.

By 2010 mood disorders such as Melinda’s were being included in borderline personality disorder and Bob had helped draw up the document showing the shortcomings of treatment for BPD and recommending changes.

It eventually reached State Parliament through the work of Upper House members Kelly Vincent and Tammy Franks in 2014, but its recommendations have not been implemented to this day.

In the meantime Bob and Judy attended an international conference on BPD in Australia in 2011 and it inspired them to set up a support group for the carers of those with BPD, called Sanctuary.

It started with three members in 2012 and now has 170.

It was no accident that Bob was able to bring these changes to the difficult and ill-defined problems of mental health.

In his previous life he had been the manager of resident engineering at the Chrysler Lonsdale Engine Plant. There his focus was on quality control.

He had been born to Robert and Eileen, and Robert’s later work for the Department of Civil Aviation had involved frequent moves during Bob’s school years.

In his youth he had been involved in racing cars and had continued to be involved in sporting car clubs in Adelaide.

Armed with a degree in mechanical engineering he had headed up the engineering at Chrysler, later Mitsubishi, at the Lonsdale engine plant.

His understanding of the statistical methods used in achieving best practice led to him hosting the leader of worldwide research in this area, Dr Genichi Taguchi, when he came to Australia, and they became good friends.

he was widely regarded for his success in applying these methods, and would be elected chairman of the Society of Automotive Engineering.

As a letter writer he was particularly alert to issues of mental health administration in SA, but wrote on many subjects, sometimes with an engineer’s perspective, and nearly always with wit and verve, such as his submission that State Government’s approach to engineering could be likened to avoiding collisions at intersections by having vehicles cross them faster thus spending less time in the danger zone.

Some letters were heartfelt, such as one following Coroner Mark Johns’ damning report on the significant failure of SA’s mental health system and preventable suicides in May last year.

“ … Nine young women, all with the same diagnosis of Borderline Personality Disorder, have committed suicide in the past two years, while the directorate refuses to implement recommendations that could have saved their lives.

“ … The determining factor for discharge of mentally unwell patients is time rather than wellbeing — our daughter was told, “You’ve had your six days, now go home”.”