Addressing youth mental health - Education Matters Magazine

Addressing youth mental health

A series of ground-breaking, evidence-based live seminars that aim to boost the mental health of Australia’s young people are being held across Australia, bringing together some of the nation’s leading wellbeing experts.

The annual Mental Health and Wellbeing of Young People 2019 seminars, developed by community focused not-for-profit organisation Generation Next, are designed for professionals in the teaching, community and health sectors who are on the frontline when it comes to driving change to boost the mental wellbeing of young people.

So far, 2019 seminars have already taken place in Brisbane, Perth and Canberra, and will be held in Adelaide on 26 July, Sydney on 2 August and Melbourne on 30 August.

Generation Next was founded to boost the mental health of children and teenagers by increasing mental health literacy, reducing associated stigma, and positively influencing individual and community behaviour to improve the mental health of young people.

It was founded by current CEO, Dr Ramesh Manocha, who is also a GP, educator and mental health expert.

“I had seen a lot of issues among young people that I was really concerned about. I was quite surprised at the way the healthcare establishment was dealing with that. This represented a wider problem at a time when mental health literacy concerning young people was low,” explains Dr Manocha.

“When I was working as a full time GP, I kept hearing about the youth mental health crisis, but there was insufficient working knowledge among the people that spend the most time with young people. Often educators spend more time with young people than their parents. Lots of teachers approached us frustrated because many of the parenting practices concerning young people’s mental health and wellbeing were being put onto them. They felt overloaded, overwhelmed and insufficiently equipped to deal with these issues.”

This led to the development of Generation Next’s annual seminars, which explore mental health issues including depression, anxiety, and drug and alcohol abuse, and also look at their origin. But why are young people experiencing an increased vulnerability to mental health issues? Dr Manocha links this to social and behavioural trends, and various things young people are doing on a daily basis that are eroding their resilience.

“We are trying to take a preventative approach, so that we are not only picking up the pieces when a young person decompensates psychologically but more importantly are trying to prevent this from happening in the first place,” he says.

Research shows that the internet and social media are certainly playing a part in many of the issues arising in young people’s mental health. “There are still people that will debate this but expert opinion is largely moving towards the conclusion that excessive consumption of the internet and digital technology is harmful. For example, the World Health Organisation has recently recognised gaming addiction as a disease. The best thing we can compare that to is that cigarette smoking causes cancer. Social media is another example – there is a clear linkage between excessive consumption and poor mental health. In general, social media is impacting on girls, and gaming on boys,” explains Dr Manocha.

“Then there is also the issue of accessing inappropriate content like pornography. A lot of kids are being exposed to troubling images, and often their first exposure is when they are very young. These images are sometimes so powerful they can shape how young people relate to others and their future relationships.”

During the 2019 seminars, expert presenters will tackle important topics that include keeping young people safer in party environments; managing attention span in the age of digital distractions; anxiety and mental health issues in school communities; helping young people through family separation; nurturing resilience in young people with a disability; and the effect of the internet on youth wellbeing.

Among the speakers is respected child and adolescent clinical psychologist Andrew Fuller, who will share important insights on connecting with troubled young people.

“There is a worrying trend where children who would have formerly been treated as in-patients in a psychiatric facility are now being treated in classrooms. The levels of anxiety and depression are quite high in schools. I think there are a number of reasons why. One of the things we’ve done in the world is harrow our version of what success is and that makes a lot of young people feel vulnerable,” he says.

“With schooling, we’ve turned it into an assessment for grading kids in terms of their capacity to get into university. We have altered the nature of education dramatically. A proportion of kids will go on to university but quite a lot won’t.”

Mr Fuller highlights some of the findings of his recent research into mental health that involved 193,000 young people. The alarming findings were that 59 per cent of Year 11 and 12 young women and 46 per cent of Year 11 and 12 young men reported clinical anxiety. Even in Years 3 and 4, anxiety is affecting about a quarter of the class. “So we have a problem on our hands,” he says. “The collateral damage is that we have a high number of students in schools who feel they are worthless. This research indicates around a third of young women and a quarter of young men believe they are worthless.”

Dr Manocha says it’s not just parents that play a role in establishing the appropriate codes of behaviour that shape young people and make them more or less vulnerable to mental health issues. “It’s the adults in education institutions, where kids spend most of their time that now have that responsibly to not only be a good role model but to understand what is going on in young people’s heads and in their world, which is changing so rapidly.”

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