October is Victorian Mental Health Month. This year, the focus is on young people, particularly those aged 16-25.
It’s a great time to reflect on the mental health and wellbeing of people around us and consider what we are doing to support and promote good mental health.
Research shows young people Australia-wide are struggling with their mental wellbeing. Nearly one in five young Victorians show signs of depression, and one in four young Australians have experienced a mental health disorder in the past 12 months. Suicide is the leading cause of death among people aged 15 to 44. Worryingly, the suicide rate is higher in regional Victoria than in metropolitan Melbourne.
While this data is obviously concerning, young people are increasingly aware of how their mental health and wellbeing impacts them and their peers, and want to talk about how to stay well and access mental health supports. Working with Youth Affairs Council Victoria (YACVic), Victoria’s peak body for young people, I have been a part of a number of consultations with young people around our state who have raised mental health as one of the top issues they are concerned about, and have ideas to improve. This month is the perfect time to ask young people what they need to support their wellbeing. And to ask yourself how your community can promote and support good mental health, especially so people know how to reach out for help in those times when things aren’t going so great.
Young people tell us that when it comes to addressing mental health and wellbeing, they not only need treatment services but support in lowering the hurdles in their way of accessing them. YACVic’s recent work with VicHealth, CSIRO, and the National Centre for Farmer Health on the Bright Futures: Spotlight on the wellbeing of young people living in rural and regional Victoria report, highlighted the negative impact a lack of accessible services is having.
Things such as distance, lack of transport, the potential cost of an appointment, the stigma associated with seeking help, and the lack of awareness of youth-friendly services can all present challenges to young people.
While some of these hurdles might be the same for young people across the state, young people in country Victoria tell us the hurdles for them are often a bit higher.
And so, they may require more assistance to get over.
Consider it from a young person’s perspective. They might have to travel a few hours to get to a mental health service. They may not have any way of getting to a service via public transport and cannot yet drive. They might not have friends or teachers in their life who understand the signs of ill mental health. They might not be able to afford an appointment. Their parents, family, of community members might not take them seriously, or not know how to help. Each time, the hurdle gets higher.
For some, a hurdle can be too hard to get over alone. This is where communities can work together and help reduce these hurdles, and in turn, some of those statistics.
An excellent example of a community initiative is Youth Live4Life. A recipient of the 2018 YACVic Rural Youth Award for Innovative Youth Project in Rural or Regional Victoria, the program takes place across three sites in country Victoria in Macedon Ranges, Glenelg Shire and Benalla. It brings together schools, support services, parents and the wider community to remove the stigma around mental health, increase supports and awareness, and reduce the hurdles for young people.
Key to the program’s success is its ability to continually engage young people in its design and delivery and create community partnership groups to drive it along. This means a lot of locals want to be involved and helps ensure the initiative will be something young people will engage in. YouthLive4Life trains school students, teachers, parents, and other adults in the community in youth mental health first aid. These courses reduce stigma around ill mental health, and ensure that people from throughout the community know how to respond when a person shows signs of mental health distress.
This type of prevention engages all of the community and normalises mental health help seeking. It takes minimal additional resources but can produce long-term results in lowering the hurdles for young people and generating positive conversations around mental health. Of course, increased investment in accessible mental health professionals in schools and the broader community will always be necessary, but we can’t just look to a single organisation or health professional to kick-start community action around mental health.
We need to start working today, with a co-ordinated approach, to look out for the young people around us, create positive spaces to discuss mental health, and support those who need help to get their mental health and wellbeing back on track.
Becc Brooker is rural policy and advocacy officer for Youth Affairs Council Victoria (YACVic).