Young people know mental health is crucial — let’s help them
Services must step in much earlier in life — from before birth, explains Leanne McLean
TODAY decision-makers, policy-makers, service providers, young people and advocates will come together at a forum in Hobart to discuss how we might do things differently to better support the mental health of Tasmanians aged 12-25.
I’ve been asked to share what I’ve learnt about how children and young people, and those who support them, are feeling about mental health and access to services.
This is a discussion we desperately need to have.
The importance of good mental health for children and young people and the need for improved access have been consistently raised with me since I began my term as Commissioner for Children and Young People almost a year ago.
The World Health Organisation defines mental health as “a state of wellbeing in which every individual realises his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to her or his community.”
For children and young people, mental health is a huge contributor to wellbeing. It can influence the way they think or feel about themselves and the world around them.
Poor mental health, if left unchecked, can have a profound impact on a young person’s future, including their ability to achieve education or employment goals.
In its recent Draft Report into Mental Health, the Productivity Commission found the cost to the Australian economy of mental ill-health and suicide is, conservatively, $43 to $51 billion a year.
The data tells us about one in seven children aged 4 to 17 in Australia have a mental disorder.
However, a disorder exists at the end of a continuum – so there will be many more Tasmanians experiencing a mental health problem at some time during their childhood or adolescence.
Further, there are children and young people who experience the stress and sometimes trauma that can come from living with others who experience mental health problems but who are not receiving support they need.
As I’ve travelled the state on a listening tour over the past year, I have heard really clearly that mental health is a priority for children and young people, that they understand what it is, and why it’s important.
I’m told there has been an increase in demand for mental health services due to an increased understanding of the importance of good mental health. I have also heard that services, not just for young people, but for others, can be difficult to access or in some cases are non-existent.
This is particularly the case in some small towns and rural areas. Waiting lists are significant, sometimes eight weeks or more. Access to qualified staff is also a barrier.
I’m told there is concern about the lack of inpatient facilities to treat children with mental illness or associated substance abuse issues.
I’ve also heard the system is difficult to navigate, especially if you don’t have the support of parents, if you are homeless or in out-of-home care.
There are state and federal funding mechanisms that support services – in schools, hospitals and communities – but these are not always well connected.
I have also heard about the frustration of carers turned away from mental health services, who have been told
their child doesn’t have a mental health problem, that it’s a “behavioural issue” or “trauma related”.
Carers and parents seeking support should not have to navigate a system in this way and neither should our young people. From what I have heard, they can be left not knowing where to turn. Where can they turn? I don’t know.
This is not a criticism of those many dedicated professionals – rather, it tells me our service system is not as integrated as it should be and we need to look at whether the services we do have are providing the assistance needed. It would be naive to presume we could eliminate mental health conditions for our young people. However, we can support them better and there are opportunities arising from the current focus on mental health at both state and federal level. Now is the time to change our approach.
Initiatives include the Productivity Commission inquiry into Mental Health; commitment to a more integrated mental health system in Tasmania; a commitment to reviewing the model of care for Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services in Tasmania; new facilities being built at both ends of the state, plus investment flowing from the Fifth National Mental Health and Suicide Prevention Plan.
We need to acknowledge things can be done differently – and we need to consider where we invest to gain the greatest bang for our buck.
Today’s forum is about how we support youth mental health – and there’s certainly a need to re-imagine our youth mental health services. We should also consider how we address the apparent decline in youth mental health – and an important way of doing this is to provide support and intervention much, much earlier in a child’s life.
The evidence is clear that the first 1000 days of a child’s life, from conception to the end of the second year, has the greatest potential to affect health and wellbeing over the life course.
This is, in my opinion, where we should also focus additional investment if we are to make a difference. At the same time, we must work better together, across all levels of government and between government agencies and non-government sector, to make the system easier to navigate. Ultimately this will help ensure the right support and assistance is available when it is asked for and when it is needed.