Young people’s mental health crisis must be addressed

In December, the United States’ Surgeon-General Vivek Murthy told US senators there was a mental health crisis among their nation’s youth and that it had been exacerbated by the isolation and uncertainty caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

In his book Dog Days, Andrew Cotter wrote from a British perspective about the reality for young people. “This is the one short period of life when your whole raison d’etre (apart from the minor intrusion of education) is one of fun and growing socially,” he wrote. “It is a time which doesn’t come again and to spend a huge part of it cooped up is a great loss.”

This crisis is also an Australian one and on Monday this masthead launched a podcast series entitled Enough, in which we examined its damaging effects on young Australians from every walk of life.

The pandemic did not introduce this problem; it has been building over years, with more and more children and young adults turning up in emergency departments across the nation with urgent problems linked to deteriorating mental health.

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Both federal and state governments have responded with pledges of cash, but as the report of Victoria’s Royal Commission into its mental health system made clear, there is also a pressing need to address social stigma surrounding treatment; to tackle accessibility and affordability; and, above all, to put those affected by mental illness in positions where they can lead our planning and decision-making.

Australian Clinical Psychology Association president Caroline Hunt emphasises the challenges of a huge shortfall in training capacity for mental health professionals and creating incentives for members of that workforce to relocate to Australia’s rural and regional communities where, in Professor Hunt’s words, “the picture is dire”.

With these issues in mind, the starting point of the Enough series was always going to be the voices of young people who are experiencing mental illness today, whether it comes in the form of depression, anxiety or disordered eating. Hosts, journalists Sophie Aubrey and Jewel Topsfield, found the young people they interviewed to be capable of remarkable candour and insight; they were, to use Topsfield’s words, “mental health-literate”. In talking to this masthead, they set aside concerns over stigma and did all of us a favour.

Enough also features the voices of professionals in this space. Grant Blashki, the lead clinical adviser for mental health organisation beyondblue, points out that in a society accustomed to instant fixes, better mental health requires a long-term commitment from patients and those working with them. Patrick McGorry, who chaired the committee advising Victoria’s royal commission, also wants a long-term commitment of federal government investment in specialised early intervention for what he calls the “missing middle” – young people with problems such as anorexia, early psychosis and personality disorders that Medicare-subsidised psychology sessions are unable to address.

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