- Charles Sturt academic argues key to saving young lives is in prevention and early intervention, not just treatment
- Statistics show youth mental health is worsening in rural and regional areas and suicide rates are increasing
- Associate Professor Gene Hodgins is calling for more funding and emphasis to be placed on the benefits of help-seeking and reducing the stigma around mental health
A leading Charles Sturt University psychology academic says how we address the wellbeing of young Australians needs to change, because while spending on youth mental health services is increasing, the wellbeing of young people is getting worse.
That’s the view of Charles Sturt University Associate Professor in the School of Psychology Gene Hodgins, who argues more needs to be done, especially in rural areas, to stop the decline of youth mental health.
While the rate of suicide grows with increasing rurality, and service demand from rural young people has increased, recent figures show a relative lack of mental health services in rural areas.
There are 13 psychiatrists per 100,000 people in major cities compared to 3.5 per 100,000 people in regional and remote areas, with similar declining availability of psychologists and mental health nurses.
Professor Hodgins said there is a need for more treatment services, but these services should be more accessible and appropriate for young people.
One in four young Australians live with mental illness, while more than 40 per cent of Year 12 students report symptoms of anxiety and depression higher than the normal range for their age group.
This year’s federal budget committed to increased spending on the youth headspace program, suicide prevention and support, the establishment of child mental health and wellbeing hubs, and the expansion of digital mental health services. The recent NSW state budget announced funding for child and adolescent ‘Safeguards’ mental health response teams.
Professor Hodgins said this is a welcome continuation of increased spending on adult and youth mental health services over the past 20 years, but it is not enough.
“Such a focus on treatment is clearly not enough, as over the same period the mental health of Australians has not improved – the suicide rate has increased and the mental health of young people has worsened,” he said.
Three out of four young people with mental health disorders are not seeking help and Professor Hodgins said lack of access to services, especially in rural and regional Australia, is partly to blame.
“For a young person living in rural areas, there can be little-to-no knowledge about what mental health services are available,” he said.
“Even those services that do exist can seem out of reach due to a myriad of social, economic and geographical barriers.”
Professor Hodgins and a colleague recently conducted research into the barriers to seeking help for rural Australian adolescents.
Findings indicated poor help-seeking attitudes were related to self-stigma, risk of disclosure and social visibility.
Professor Hodgins said emphasising the benefits of help-seeking might reduce the stigma and increase the number of adolescents seeking treatment.
“But most importantly, with 50 per cent of people who experience mental illness experiencing their first episode before the age of 14, we need to pivot towards more emphasis on prevention and early intervention,” he said.
“Mental health issues need to be addressed early before they develop into more significant problems for young people. Warning signs of potential psychological issues include: a change from normal mood or behaviour, social withdrawal, changes in academic performance, ongoing sadness or worries, loss of interest in things they used to enjoy.
“Ultimately if we want young people to develop resilience, the community should rethink how it views young people and how it engages with them.
“Young people need public spaces and opportunities where they feel included, valued and able to express themselves. We also need to involve young people more in mental health support planning and the mental health workforce.”
Professor Hodgins said young people’s mental health must also be a priority of schools and universities, as an important point of intervention for promotion of good mental health and wellbeing, as well as for the prevention of mental illness and early recognition and response when someone is experiencing mental distress.
The safety and wellbeing of staff and students is a priority at Charles Sturt, which has a range of services and programs that can be accessed via the University website.
If you or someone you know needs help, contact:
Lifeline on 13 11 14
Kids Helpline on 1800 551 800
or the University’s after-hours support line on 1300 572 516 or text 0480 087 002.