Opinion | Youth mental health: Teach our young people to speak

Be a collective voice for change: Let's teach our young people to speak

Why in rural areas are we not demanding national action on the mental health crisis similar to our government's fast and coordinated response to the COVID-19 pandemic?

Suicide is the leading cause of death among young Australians. Last year younger Australians took their own lives at a greater rate than were killed on our roads, a national disgrace. Three hundred and fifty young people between the ages of 14-25 voluntarily ended their lives. These shocking numbers hide the hundreds of un-successful attempts, many of which do not make official statistics.

As an educator of 30 years I have lost many fine young people to suicide or 'accidents' that most people realise are suicides, but as part of the grieving process spare the family the embarrassment and social stigma poor mental health and suicide stills attracts, especially in the country.

The question I ask educators or parents, did we teach them the skills and provided the environment for them to gain the confidence?

I write stigma because I still have conversations with people where the mention of a mental health condition is met with awkward silence, rather than open discussion. If a child breaks their arm we embrace and emphasise with the child. We understand and are not emotionally challenged, we can be part of the solution, we feel good. A mental health condition, as treatable, is often met with silence, social and emotional isolation for the person.

Unfortunately, if we cannot talk about youth mental health we normalise the family and societal consequences. Young people becoming disenfranchised with education, family dysfunctionality and violence are just a few. The problem can become generational as families pass on this idea of normality onto children. These statements appear judgemental but they are actually observational from 30 years' experience in education.

One young man is particularly etched in my memory to the extent that I still ask questions and reflect upon my inability to hear, understand and help 26 years later is Daniel (not his real name). He set high expectations and most times rose to the academic challenges through hard work.

Daniel upon reflection, was a victim of the enormous pressure we allow and passively encourage students to internalise during the Higher School Certificate year. Statements from teachers and parents such as; you only get one chance at this or you are throwing away your life have the potential to do enormous damage and are simply not true. Good schools and universities provide multiple pathways to success not just the Higher School Certificate.

The message Daniel was receiving was his whole worth as an individual was now and, in the future, determined by the marks he received in that exam. Unfortunately, when results arrived in January, the score in one exam period, one snapshot of his life, made him only in his eyes, a failure.

Not only his life was lost but it affected the lives of hundreds of others. All this time later I can still see the pain on his mother's face. From that day I use the statement to my students, 'exams are a reflection on your ability to answer these questions on this day not your worth as a person'. Daniel's worth was not contained in that envelope.

The reasons why young people are not seeking support ranges from simplistic to complex:

Country areas have shamefully limited mental health services for young people despite the extent of the problem. Many of these services are at capacity, or have staffing complexities that limit consistent delivery of services.

In country towns it is very difficult to maintain confidentiality as in many cases the doctor, psychologist etc have direct or in-direct links to the young person.

Many country children, particularly boys, are socialised to internalise emotion. Suck it up and deal with it rather than acknowledge. This allows these negatives to often build up and be released by excessive self medication with drugs or alcohol, or extreme risk-taking behaviours.

As a collective group we still seem very poor at listening and providing support. Instead of directing a young person to appropriate services, their friends are more likely to direct him to the pub for 15 drinks.

Often when I highlight youth mental health I am accused of painting rural communities in a negative light. This is not my intention. I am not saying the Central West has a unique problem, it is a wonderful place to live and raise a family. Australia has a problem and a worrying level of political and societal denial and apathy. Acknowledgement of the problem is a vital first step to starting to reduce or an aspirational goal of solving it.

Join me in being a collective voice for change.

If you or someone you know is in need of help, please reach out for support by calling Kids Helpline on 1800 55 1800, Lifeline on 1800 273 8255, Beyond Blue on 1300 22 4636 or the NSW Mental Health Line on 1800 011 511.

You can also visit the NSW Health website for a list of services and support contacts at https://www.health.nsw.gov.au/mentalhealth/services/Pages/support-contact-list.aspx

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