Staff Profile – Dr James Wilson

24 Jun 2021

Dr James Wilson is a Senior Research Officer and is the Data Coding Team Lead for the National Addiction and Mental Health Surveillance Unit (NAMHSU)

james wilson photo

Turning Point is made up of a diverse team that is committed to removing stigma around drug and alcohol addiction and providing support for those affected by addiction. We like to profile the great work that our teams do and give people insights into what it is like to work in the addiction treatment, training, and research sector. This is James’s story.

Meet James and his (growing) team

James Wilson started in 2016 as a research assistant for Turning Point’s Population Health team. Now he is a Senior Research Officer and Data Coding Team Lead for the National Addiction and Mental Health Surveillance Unit (NAMHSU) at Turning Point. During his time with Turning Point he has been part of a range of interesting projects and has completed a qualitative research project on young adults and alcohol for his PhD along the way.

“There are opportunities to develop and progress your career at Turning Point,” James said.

Over the last 18 months James’ team at the National Addiction and Mental Health Surveillance Unit (NAMHSU) has grown from around 15 people to a large team of over 40.

“At the moment we are a big diverse team. (We have) people from different research backgrounds, people who don’t have research backgrounds at all, and people who are interested in the sector. We have a number of people who work with us casually as it’s a really good job that can fit around study, kids or other jobs.”

What does James do?

There are numerous projects underway at NAMHSU underpinned by the work done by James and his team on coding the almost ¾ of a million anonymous, raw ambulance records that NAMHSU receives from ambulance services around the country each year.

“Our work used to be just about keeping tabs on heroin overdoses in Metro Melbourne, but now it has expanded to include surveilling mental health, self-harm and violence in the rest of Victoria and now we cover all jurisdictions around the country.”

“Currently, we mainly process ambulance data. We have a whole team of people who interpret the information and code it for the information we need.”

“We are really unique research unit. Internationally there are no other units who do this kind of work with ambulance data.”

As part of their research, James’ team received funding from Google to develop an AI program to assist with coding of data to build a self-harm and suicide surveillance system. They also provide data, alongside other national data sets to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare for suicide and self-harm public health surveillance that provides a more nuanced picture of suicide and self-harm in Australia.

The timeliness and accuracy of data is a very important aspect of what the team do.

“Something that is really lacking in the landscape at the moment is that we don’t have great data on suicide and the behaviors that lead up to suicide. So, ambulance data is really good at capturing that because if someone is having an acute mental health episode or they’re self-harming in a suicidal way it is usually ambos who attend and respond to those cases.”

What is the culture like at Turning Point?

Dealing with data that covers suicide, self-harm, mental health, and addiction, can be confronting but James says that Turning Point fosters a very empathetic and supportive work environment. This approach extends to both its employees and the broader community that we work on helping through all aspects of our work whether it be treatment, education or research. 

“At Turning Point, it really comes down to the connections we have not only with the clients that come in but also the general community that is involved with substance use, addiction and mental health issues. Part of the culture comes from trying to understand and empathise with those people as much as you can and that really shapes the way we work.”

There have been some challenges navigating the pandemic and working remotely, but employee welfare has always been a central focus for the team. 
“We try to encourage self-care and discuss things as much as we can...Now that a lot of us are back on site we can generate those discussions again much more easily and are able to say to the person next to you, ‘Look I have come across some content that is distressing for me, I need to go out for a walk’ or ‘Can you come and talk to me about it’, that is something we have always encouraged.”

Interested in working with Turning Point?

For anyone considering applying for a job at Turning Point or any job in the addiction treatment, training, and research sector James recommends you try and expose yourself a little to what is going on in the field of addiction beforehand. Gaining an understanding of that addiction actually is, versus what is represented in media can be particularly helpful. 

“Resisting the taken for granted assumptions about what it means to take drugs or what it means to have an addiction (is key). Once you can break down those barriers a little bit, things start to become a bit easier, and you can adapt to the job a lot faster.”

Seeing the person behind the data is incredibly important for all of our researchers, fundamentally we are trying to improve people’s lives by using real data to inform public health responses and treatment. 

“It is a fast-moving field I think it’s quite an interesting space to be in. I can only really speak from the research background, you do have to have a deeper level of engagement in what you are doing and the people you are trying to represent because it is such a stigmatised field. So many of the issues that we deal with are so common to so many aspects of society, but it is still so stigmatised. Bridging that gap between what happens in policy space and what happens in the treatment and research that we do is the main goal.”