Ruth Wraith OAM
Ruth Wraith’s first experience with The Royal Children’s Hospital (RCH) came during her placement at the former Carlton site as part of her training as an occupational therapist. From this time Ruth remembers the quirky old buildings with their many nooks and crannies, but also different attitudes to the care of sick children with very restricted visiting hours for families. For someone who would go on to a long career in the area of child and adolescent mental health, these initial experiences proved a striking contrast to the ‘whole child’ approach which evolved including families becoming integral to a child’s healing within the hospital context.
As a new graduate Ruth worked at the Royal Park psychiatric hospital with adolescent girls. This experience sparked Ruth’s interest in the psychological and emotional health of young people and further developed her understanding of the impact of a child’s past experiences on their later wellbeing. In 1963 this interest led to a position in the Department of Psychiatry at RCH. Ruth recalls the excitement, optimism and empathetic engagement with children and their families that existed within the new Royal Parade campus. For her this was a stark contrast to the ‘locked wards and fenced yards’ culture that Victoria’s mental health system was emerging from at that time.
“I recall being on various ward rounds, maybe orthopaedics, or cardiology, or general medicine, where universally there was enormous care and consideration for the child as a person as well as for their medical condition. I found that warm, inclusive, generous attitude spilled right through the hospital.”
In the 1960s there was no formal training pathway for child psychotherapists but she received in-service training with the psychiatric registrars and other professionals engaged in psychological medicine within the Department of Psychiatry. As her career progressed, Ruth took advantage of training opportunities as they opened up, receiving a Masters Degree in Child Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy from Monash University. Ruth would go on to became head of the Department of Child Psychotherapy at the RCH, a position she held for ten years before her retirement in 2005.
Over her time at the RCH, Ruth worked on developing clinical practices in the areas of group therapy, community mental health, crisis intervention and, most significantly, the understanding and treatment of childhood trauma. She undertook extensive pioneering work with governments to improve responses to trauma in the aftermath of catastrophic natural disasters or violent events. Much of this work proved influential in establishing models for community recovery that are now established practice and today Ruth is considered one of Australia’s leading disaster mental health experts.
In 2012 Ruth Wraith was awarded the Medal of the Order of Australia for service to community health, particularly the treatment of children recovering from trauma.
Listen to an audio extract from Ruth Wraith’s 2019 oral history interview
Transcription of audio extract:
“When I joined the hospital in October 1963, coming from Royal Park, I found the atmosphere to be one of great excitement still – it was a brand new hospital, everybody was abuzz and learning how it worked. Underneath that was that solid, grounded core of warmth, concern for children and families, of real empathic engagement rather than sort of a fluffy sentimental layering over the top, a real empathic engagement, of striving for the kids. Now those threads I found then carried right through for me. Without denigrating the work, the culture, the staff that I experienced within the state mental health system, I found this to be a huge contrast.”