Life & Style Weekend - - MAGAZINE / IN FOCUS - WORDS: SUNI GO­LIGHTLY Suni Go­lightly is the com­mu­ni­ca­tions con­sul­tant for Cape By­ron Med­i­cal.

There’s a cri­sis go­ing on, and it’s hap­pen­ing in our homes, our schools and our play­grounds. Men­tal ill­ness is af­fect­ing an alarm­ing and grow­ing num­ber of our chil­dren and teens. In fact, one in seven Aus­tralians aged four–17 are ex­pe­ri­enc­ing a men­tal health con­di­tion, ac­cord­ing to be­yond­blue. That’s more than half a mil­lion chil­dren and ado­les­cents. A Mis­sion Aus­tralia youth sur­vey last year sug­gested the fig­ures may be even higher. About a quar­ter (23.7 per cent) of 15–19year-olds were either ex­tremely con­cerned (11.1 per cent) or very con­cerned (12.6 per cent) about de­pres­sion. Shock­ingly, sui­cide is the big­gest killer of young Aus­tralians – more deaths of young peo­ple than crashes. In 2015, 391 young peo­ple aged 15–24 died by sui­cide – against 290 in 2005. Child psy­chol­o­gist El­iz­a­beth Mar­gules said about one in 10 ado­les­cents was be­lieved to be liv­ing with post-trau­matic stress dis­or­der trig­gered by a trau­matic event, ac­cord­ing to fig­ures from the Na­tional Drug and Al­co­hol Re­search Cen­tre at UNSW Syd­ney. “Around half of these young peo­ple are self-med­i­cat­ing with drugs and al­co­hol, putting them at risk of chronic sub­stance abuse,” said Ms Mar­gules, who treats teens in cri­sis at Cape By­ron Med­i­cal Cen­tre. While they are deal­ing with de­vel­op­men­tal is­sues – the tran­si­tion from child­hood to teen and then to adult – they are be­ing hit with a range of fac­tors, from bul­ly­ing, trolling and so­cial me­dia sat­u­ra­tion to fam­ily break­down and an in­crease in health con­di­tions such as di­a­betes that can be linked to de­pres­sion.


“Whether we are dis­cussing de­pres­sion, anx­i­ety or be­havioural is­sues, men­tal health prob­lems and be­havioural prob­lems stem from prob­lems in emo­tional devel­op­ment,” said Mee Hee Dou­glas, a clin­i­cal psy­chol­o­gist. “To sim­ply treat these is­sues with med­i­ca­tion does a dis­ser­vice to our pro­fes­sion and to the peo­ple we are meant to treat.” Ms Dou­glas isn’t say­ing an­tide­pres­sants aren’t some­times im­por­tant. Rather she’s ad­vo­cat­ing a com­plete ap­proach to emo­tional and phys­i­cal well­be­ing. “Tran­si­tion­ing from child­hood to adult­hood and find­ing one’s place in the world is a very pre­car­i­ous thing, es­pe­cially for to­day’s teenagers, who are con­fronted with an ex­ter­nal world that is threat­en­ing and un­cer­tain,” she said. At the same time, smart de­vices and apps and the in­ter­net risk be­com­ing chil­dren’s to­tal ex­is­tence and meet­ing space. Ms Mar­gules agrees: “There used to be a stage in be­tween child­hood and ado­les­cence that was a valu­able time for ac­quir­ing prob­lem-solv­ing, de­ci­sion-mak­ing and com­mu­ni­ca­tion skills. This is now rushed through by changes in cul­ture driven by the dig­i­tal world. Tech­nol­ogy presents a ma­jor is­sue for men­tal health, with around 60–90 per cent of the com­mu­ni­ca­tion ado­les­cents do be­ing dig­i­tal.”


A Re­silient Youth study in 2017 showed 68 per cent of Year 7–12 stu­dents re­port us­ing tech­nol­ogy be­tween 10pm and 6am. Lead­ing child sleep physi­cian Dr Chris Se­ton, from the Wool­cock Med­i­cal In­sti­tute, has sug­gested that screen time for chil­dren could be as ad­dic­tive as drugs. While we can’t con­trol teen ob­ses­sions such as self­ies, we can sup­port chil­dren to de­velop re­silience, recog­nise what mat­ters and fo­cus on the pos­i­tive. “The great­est pre­dic­tor of well­be­ing is not be­ing good-look­ing or hav­ing a lot of money. It is hav­ing a rich reper­toire of friends and the sup­port of par­ents,” Ms Mar­gules said. Par­ents also need to en­gage with chil­dren and teens in a gen­uine way, giv­ing ado­les­cents full at­ten­tion and pos­i­tive feed­back. “Ado­les­cents are op­er­at­ing mostly out of the amyg­dala, a struc­ture of the brain which op­er­ates well off feed­back, short sen­tences and hu­mour. The ca­pac­ity for for­ward think­ing and weigh­ing up con­se­quences is a work in progress,” Ms Mar­gules said. “There­fore, the role other car­ing adults play is piv­otal in sup­port­ing lim­its and bound­aries.”


Par­ents, as well as friends and rel­a­tives, need to watch out for the red flags of men­tal ill­ness: sud­den loss of in­ter­est and plea­sure in ac­tiv­i­ties that once re­ally gave them joy; con­trolled eat­ing; dif­fi­culty sleep­ing; and long-stand­ing feel­ings of un­hap­pi­ness or mood­i­ness ac­com­pa­nied by a sense of empti­ness or numb­ness for two–three weeks should be a con­cern. Chil­dren and teens may be self-crit­i­cal or pre­oc­cu­pied with dark and gloomy thoughts – in­clud­ing those of sui­cide. “Men­tal ill­ness in teenagers oc­curs when they have trou­ble work­ing through the ado­les­cent task of sep­a­ra­tion and how they want to be in the world,” Ms Dou­glas said. “It may be too much for them and then they can be­come symp­to­matic in the form of school re­fusal, eat­ing disor­ders, panic dis­or­der, so­cial anx­i­ety, anti-so­cial be­hav­iour and other forms of se­vere re­fusal syn­drome.” If you are con­cerned, try to cre­ate op­por­tu­ni­ties to talk. It’s im­por­tant to un­der­stand that ask­ing about sui­ci­dal thoughts or ideas will not in­crease the like­li­hood of any ac­tion be­ing taken. If your child is open to pro­fes­sional help, seek a psy­chol­o­gist ex­pe­ri­enced with chil­dren and teens. If you sus­pect chil­dren or teens are at im­me­di­ate risk of sui­cide or self-harm, they should be re­ferred to the emer­gency depart­ment or rel­e­vant acute men­tal health ser­vice or a child/youth psy­chi­a­trist.


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