Opinion | Long dark shadow hangs over our kids

By Samantha Brown, CEO at Peer Support Australia

As Australia’s youth mental health crisis continues to wreck families and devastate communities, it is time for decision-makers in this country to invest in preventive policies that focus on tackling the problem before it becomes a tragedy.

It is clear to mental health professionals that young Australians are still suffering from the aftershock of the pandemic, which so disrupted their lives and isolated them from their peers.

The damaging consequences hit young people at a time in their lives when many of them were not yet emotionally mature enough to cope with the wildly uncertain times they found themselves in.

The fact the pandemic wrought so much instability on the tail of the bushfire disaster should not be downplayed. All at the same time they are being told there is not much to be optimistic about for the future as the climate crisis bites.

Researchers at the University of Sydney’s Brain and Mind Centre warned the disruption caused by Covid would cast a “long shadow” over mental health. That shadow is indeed leaving our young people in a dark place. Suicide is the leading cause of death among Australians aged 15-24. In the year to July 2021, nearly 8500 people under 18 were hospitalised for self-harm and suicidal ideation – more than 40 cases a day, according to NSW Health data. This was up 31 per cent over 2020, and a 47 per cent increase over 2019.

Calls to Kids Helpline in NSW were up 52 per cent, while between December 2020 and June 2021, duty of care interventions to protect children and young people was nearly twice as high (99 per cent) as the same period a year prior.

With numbers rising, it is time to take a preventive approach that helps build resilience and strength among our young people. This means teaching them the skills they need to deal with adversity and difficult moments in their lives.

Australia has many high-quality mental health services supporting young people in times of crisis, but now we must accept that when it comes to mental health, early intervention programs for our young people are key. The younger population has always required that extra support and guidance, as they navigate the realities and complexities of youth, and in times like these that need has escalated.

Peer Support Australia is a national non-profit organisation, which delivers a vital student-led program which itself has been present in Australian schools for more than 50 years. We provide essential support and Social Emotional Learning (SEL) to schools and communities to positively impact students’ wellbeing and to develop happy, confident and resilient young people.

The program benefits are school-wide, supporting the mental health and wellbeing of students, teachers and school leaders – this then has a direct uplift on the educational outcomes of school students.

By helping young people to understand how to cope with hardship, we can make sure they have the best chance possible to live happy and successful lives.

Two and half years on from the beginning of the pandemic, we are at crucial point. Let’s put the focus on prevention and early intervention by investing in proven programs to support young Australians before they get to the crisis stage.

First published in the Sunday Telegraph on 04 September 2022. Republished with permission.