Medicine: Dr Adaobi Udechuku

Dr Adaobi Udechuku (MBBS 1990, GDip Women’s Health 1995, GDip Infant and Parent Mental Health 2013) is co-founder and perinatal psychiatrist at perinatal emotional health and wellbeing clinic, GLOW.

What or who motivated you at the University of Melbourne?

I completed my secondary schooling in Western Australia and had applied to go to Monash University. However, when I got to Melbourne I realised that Monash was quite a long way out of the city so I decided instead that I wanted to go to the University of Melbourne and live at Trinity College.

The Trinity College warden at the time, Dr Evan Burge, was interested in making the college more diverse, and so he managed to find a place for me. That really made a big difference to my University experience. My formative friendships were made through my two years at Trinity and it meant that I was much more supported in those early years of medical training.

What goals did you set yourself when you finished university and have you stuck to that plan?

Whilst doing my medical training I knew I really wanted to do specialty training. Initially I wanted to be a physician but over time I got more interested in what made my patients who they were, rather than examining them through their illness or disorder. I realised that psychiatry might be right for me.

Early in my psychiatry training I worked in one of the first mother-baby units at the Austin Hospital. That experience really cemented my interest in perinatal psychiatry and mental health.

I also had the usual dreams of being able to have a fulfilling career, do specialty training, and have a family. I undertook the first year of my specialty training full-time but then I was fortunate to have a year out of training in the United States as my husband was doing his fellowship over there. I spent that year with my then young daughter. After that I decided it was of utmost importance to balance both family and work life and was able to go back and do my training part-time, which was quite unusual back then.

What drew you to your area of expertise and what do you love about it?

In the scheme of psychiatry as a whole, perinatal psychiatry is a relatively new sub-specialty. Australia is one of the world leaders in the field, although we’re quiet achievers in that respect. So, I have had quite extensive and formative experiences with some of the people who have pioneered the field in Australia.

One of the things I love about this speciality is that the women I work with are very determined to get well. Regardless of their past histories of ill health or non-compliance with their treatment or medication, or their previous challenges to accept their diagnosis, when they come to visit me they say quite clearly that they are motivated to do what they need to do to be well throughout their pregnancy and as a parent. That is very exciting as a clinician because you are then truly working with your patient.

Additionally, the vast majority of perinatal mental health is very treatable and we now know that the impacts of the illness can extend to the developing foetus and then the child as it grows into adolescence if mothers are unwell during their pregnancy. So, if we can see mothers early - even before they are planning their pregnancy - and help them to get well, then it acts as a form of preventative mental health, which is very rewarding to be a part of.

Finally, there are the babies. Suddenly, you have not one patient but two or three! It is lovely to see the fathers working with the mothers and their infants to help the mothers see all the things the baby brings to the equation and to develop their relationships.

What are some highlights of you career so far?

As a clinician, the highlight has been working with some of my patients and seeing what they have been able to achieve. To see young mums who were quite unwell, and did not have a good mother role model themselves, become the mothers they hoped to be is very moving.

I also get to see the babies develop and grow, sometimes up to two or three years old, and the babies get to know you too.

Along with the highlights of clinical work, what co-founder Lucinda Smith and I have been able to establish with GLOW is a definite highlight. Whilst there are challenges, it is very rewarding to set up a clinic where we see the whole family and take a holistic approach to their wellbeing. It fits with both my personal and professional philosophy about health.

It is also always a highlight to see clients reap the benefits of working with us and hear their feedback that GLOW has made a big difference for them.

What have been some of the biggest challenges that you have encountered in founding GLOW?

Something that Lucinda and I were aware of before we started GLOW is that we do not receive formal training in business in our medical training. We had to learn a lot about business through bringing in consultants and other experts.

Also, GLOW is still a small business so we are required to work on the business as much as we consult – my children would tell you it takes a lot of my time! So, it’s been challenging to maintain a balance and practice what we preach to our patients. But the challenges of extra work do not outweigh the reward.

What does a normal day at work look like for you? 

Checking emails, then on a consulting day I consult on the hour. I may see a mother, a couple, or a mother and baby, and help them work through their challenges. There will be many meetings, including some meetings with local GPs to tell them about GLOW. I might then supervise one of our psychologists and go through their cases with them to provide support. Because it is a small business there is a lot of checking off on things like advertising, promotions, branding and networking.

I finish my consulting day at around 5:30 – 6:00pm. It would be nice if it ended there but that is not usually the case. In the evening, I finish off whatever has occurred during the day or write our e-newsletter. If I am lucky and have been able to structure my day correctly, then hopefully I would also be able to go to a yoga class and I always make sure I have dinner with my husband.

What is the best piece of advice you've ever been given?

I’ve had a lot of good advice but the piece that comes back to me right now is something my father said to me: before you start to complain, first count your blessings.

What excites you most about the future? 

On a professional level, I am very excited for where GLOW can go. We have many exciting plans for GLOW’s future.

I am also very excited about the field of perinatal health because it is a growing field in terms of not just understanding the illnesses, but also what constitutes wellbeing. Initially in this field we used to just think of the mother, but we are now very cognisant of the needs of fathers in terms of how they can adjust to becoming a good dad. There are a lot of dads who may not have had good role models and traditional role models often do not fit into modern society, so we help them to work out what the benchmark is for how to be an involved dad in the future. There are also dads who experience difficulties independent of their partner when they become a father so the field of perinatal mental health is starting to recognise these difficulties in their own right.

One thing we are trying to do at GLOW is to make it as father-inclusive as possible. We have brought on board a male psychologist who is there to see fathers, co-facilitate our groups, and run workshops specific to fathers. We are trying to make dads feel as welcome at GLOW as their partners have been.

On a personal note, I have two young adults as children - my daughter who is currently finishing off her term as Senior Student at Trinity College and a son in Year 12 at Geelong Grammar School. I am excited to see where they go and who they become. The world is so much more open now in terms of what you can do as a young person and there are many opportunities which they take less and less for granted. I look forward to seeing the people that they become and how they contribute to society and the world.

What advice do you have for current students?

The first advice I would offer to current students is to do mindfulness meditation and learn to pay attention and live in the present moment without judgement. It is such a fantastic life skill and if you can start in your twenties then you will be able to set up a really strong practice throughout your life – I wish that I had started in my youth. Find a good teacher, group or even one of the many Apps and practice on a regular basis.

Secondly, the future is exciting but it is also uncertain – jobs are less secure, University is expensive, it has become harder to buy a home, and the environment is at a critical stage. I think there is a level of anxiety that can make young people feel less free to experiment and take some time off to experience other things. Yet, the advice that I would give is that there is no need to worry – the vast majority of you will be perfectly fine. I encourage you to take the side roads and pursue some of those things that you have a passion for that do not necessarily lead to the pathway you think you are meant to be on. Step off and try the things that will enrich you as a person, you will be okay at the end of it.

Any last thoughts?

I am of African descent. When I went to Melbourne University there were no other Africans in the medical degree, almost none on campus, and very few women. So, when I was studying there were some aspects that were lonely, though not in an overt way. Now whenever I am near the campus or talking to my kids, it is so fantastic to see and hear about the diversity which creates a fabulous melting pot of individuals. When I look at the University now they have student organisation for all sorts of students, including an African Student Association. It is so great to see that, as well as the depth of talent in the African-Australian youth. I think Melbourne University is less of a lonely place in that respect.