Stephanie creates change across continents

A hand-written note telling Dr Stephanie Hanrahan she was "the difference that people need" has made a 10-year project in poverty-stricken cities around the world all the more satisfying.

The University of Queensland Faculty of Health and Behavioural Sciences expert has returned from multiple missions to Mexico, Argentina, Botswana and the USA.

In each country she ran her LifeMatters program, a series of game-based sessions that focus on improving life satisfaction and a sense of self-worth.

"On one trip to Mexico I was working with former gang members and drug addicts," Dr Hanrahan said.

"Despite that background, they became one of the best groups I have worked with and the results of the program were very encouraging.

"One person there told me how they were sleeping rough on the street at age seven, with a baseball bat to defend himself. By the time he was nine it was a knife and then, at age 10, it was a gun.

"Another participant had a brother who was shot three times. The participant finished the program, visited his brother in hospital and began to pass on what he learned in LifeMatters to help turn his life around."

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Dr Hanrahan said intervention with criminals often focused on "deficit reduction" - curtailing their activities to minimise harm to society - but LifeMatters focused on increasing positive outlets.

Through modified games, participants are encouraged to work on the elements of their lives they can control, while better dealing with disappointment in facets that are uncontrollable.

"The games are designed to be fun, but at the same time they teach trust, communication and problem-solving," Dr Hanrahan said.

"Results indicated that, in addition to increases in life satisfaction and self-worth, there were also increases in happiness, resilience, confidence and perceived competence.

"My time in Cleveland, Ohio, was one of the rare chances I have had to run LifeMatters in an English-speaking environment overseas.

"It was while there that I received a note that said 'Please come back because you are the difference people need', and that meant as much to me as any of the research findings."

A former national volleyball representative, Dr Hanrahan began her academic career with intent to focus on high-performance sports development, but has found her life's passion in LifeMatters.

She is an Associate Professor with joint appointments to the School of Human Movement and Nutrition Sciences and the School of Psychology.