By Ron Maxwell - CEO
The state of youth mental health in our regional areas is close to breaking point. With a lack of dedicated mental health services, an understaffed and underfunded public system, and no obvious strategy to combat this growing problem, those who need support in our regional areas are often faced with long waiting lists. In many cases, these people are at crisis point – and waiting is the last thing we should be asking of them.
In our work at VERTO, we often see the mental health impacts of long-term unemployment, but in some cases, we are starting to see these same symptoms in the short-term unemployed too. Anecdotally, we're seeing an increase in mental health issues amongst our clients in the 15-24 age range, and this should be a concern for us all.
A recent report on the state of mental health in regional Victoria tells a frightening story – communities overwhelmed by drug and alcohol use, lack of employment, and most worryingly, lack of access to vital health services. And the outlook is no different for many regional areas across the country.
Beyond the extensive personal impacts, on individual sufferers, on their families and support networks, mental health is costing all Australians. In fact, according to the World Economic Forum, the costs of mental health can exceed 4% of a country's GDP. Conversely, proper treatment of depression and anxiety returns $4 for every $1 spent.
In Australia, mental health issues account for almost 15% of the health burden, yet only receive 5% of the health budget. There is a clear problem here, that our governments need to address but, in the meantime, we all need to play a role in improving youth mental health within our communities.
While awareness campaigns such as RUOK Day are great for helping to take the stigma away from mental health, there’s more to do in ensuring we keep this top of mind. It will take a long term approach to find the right solution.
And social media use may be compounding the problem. While there are many great things online networks offer, young people may find themselves spending more time online than face to face making the connections that form a support network. And there is some evidence out there that the more time children spend chatting online, the less happy they feel. In my opinion, there is also a widening gap between the realities of the workplace and young people's expectations, and this may be another cause of anxiety.
Whatever the causes, there is no denying that there has been a decline in the mental health of young people across Australia, and this is exacerbated in regional areas where numerous factors – higher drug and alcohol consumption, less access to employment, and lack of health services – are creating the perfect storm.
There are some organisations that are making inroads. At VERTO, we work with youth mental health organisation, Headspace, to refer young people at risk to the services they need. By all accounts, this is a fantastic service that is really targeted at young people, addresses the challenges they are facing, and talks to them in a way they can connect with. I was gladdened recently, to hear that Headspace are piloting school mental health programs in the Orange area, which really can make a difference.
Youth mental health is an issue I am so passionate about and, I believe, we can all look at ways to make a difference, particularly local businesses who may be able to offer resources that will help grow services in their local community. At VERTO, for example, we provide training spaces free of charge to Lifeline to train more local people as counsellors so that they can increase their impact in the communities we serve.
But we still need a public health system that is poised and ready to support the work of organisations like Headspace and Lifeline, when medical intervention is required – without this missing puzzle piece, we stand to have young people that are subjected to long waiting lists to get critical services.
With the youth suicide rates in Australia skyrocketing, I think we can all agree, that this is something that simply can't wait.
If you or someone in your life is experiencing challenges with mental health, don't be afraid to reach out. You can call Lifeline on 13 11 14, Kids Helpline on 1800 551 800 or Headspace on 1800 650 890.