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.

Bullying in schools: how the Peer Support Program can help

Bullying in schools is a big problem, with long-term repercussions for both victims and perpetrators. Kids who experience bullying are more likely to experience serious mental health issues later in life, and those who bully are at an increased risk of ongoing behavioural problems.

So what can schools do?

Anti-bullying expert Dr Ken Rigby says the prime responsibility lies with schools, because this is where the bullying mostly happens. Dr Rigby details actions schools can take to address and prevent bullying, from creating an anti-bullying policy to adopting intervention strategies. 

Peer support, such as buddy schemes and peer mentoring, is an important part of an anti-bullying approach. Dr Rigby says ‘schools can help students perform supportive roles at school.’

The Peer Support Program builds supportive relationships between students, and can also address the issue of bullying directly via our anti-bullying modules. 

What is bullying? 

The Australian Human Rights Commission defines bullying as a repeated and intentional use of words or actions to cause distress and risk to a person’s wellbeing. There is often an imbalance of power. 

Bullying is more common in person, but it can also happen online. Four in ten young Australians report having a negative online experience in the last six months, including 15 per cent who received threats or abuse, according to an eSafety Commissioner report

During the year, about 15% of Australian school students experience bullying


School culture plays a crucial role in preventing bullying in schools

Research shows that school culture has a direct impact on the prevalence of bullying.

Peer Support Australia’s CEO Samantha Brown says students of all ages need to feel safe at school. 

“The Peer Support Program helps build a culture of connection, empathy and safety,” Ms Brown says. “This leads to confidence and connection which can positively impact a student’s capacity to learn.” 

Building strong peer relationships is part of the solution. 

Mission Australia’s annual survey of young adults found that 81% of young people turn to a friend when seeking advice. Young people are more likely to confide in a friend than a parent, teacher or another adult.

“The Peer Support Program was founded on this insight 50 years ago and is the reason it has been so successful,” says Ms Brown. “The Program equips young people with the tools and skills to support each other, build strong relationships and navigate their own mental health.” 

The Program covers different modules that schools can use across 8-weeks in structured sessions that are led by more senior students. The anti-bullying modules, Stronger Together (for primary students) and Strengthening Our Connections (for secondary students), helps schools build a culture that is safe and supportive. 

Students with disabilities experience greater rates of being bullied. 


Relationships are key to reducing bullying in schools 

Evidence tells us that many protective factors for mental health are associated with positive relationships. 

“Relationships impact our mental, social and emotional wellbeing,” Ms Brown said. 

The Peer Support Program’s anti-bullying modules focus on:

  • Growing student safety through building better relationships. 
  • Peer leadership that complements other actions to reduce bullying. 
  • Building skills and capacity among students to problem solve and take action for themselves and on behalf of other students. 
  • A whole-of-school approach that combines student leadership, staff and parent understanding and support. 

The Stronger Together and Strengthening Our Connections modules complement other activities within a school to address and reduce bullying.

Michelle has used the Peer Support Program to reduce bullying in her schools 

In 2015, Assistant Principal Michelle, was teaching at a primary school in Melbourne that was experiencing high rates of bullying. 

Michelle and her team addressed the problem through a whole-of-school approach, adopting several tactics to change the culture. This included implementing the Peer Support Program, and running the Stronger Together module. 

“I think the Peer Support Program really helps. It helps students to say that, ‘I can be a leader, I can make a change, I can make a difference.’  And when they step into those leadership roles, they become empowered.”

Michelle, Assistant Principal

In addition to running the Peer Support Program, the school set up a ‘bully blocker pledge’.

“The students all brainstormed on a Google form, and then they came up with the top five agreements as a whole school as to what the school would look like in order for it to be a bully blocker school. That went up in the hall on a big sign, and every assembly we refer back to it. These are the behaviors we have here at our school. And it just really helped to change the kids’ mindset as well.”

Michelle is a long-time supporter of the Peer Support Program, and has implemented it at several schools during her teaching career. 

“I’ve always loved the program, and I’ve always seen its benefits,” Michelle said. 

Adopt a whole-of-school approach 

Ms Brown says that positive student relationships are best achieved through a whole-of-school approach.

“This means addressing all facets of the school community and its relationships,” Ms Brown says. “This includes having a committed leadership team, a focus on culture and the physical environment, and integrated approaches to teaching and learning including professional development and strong partnerships with parents and carers.”

Contact Peer Support Australia to find out more about the Peer Support Program, including the Stronger Together and Strengthening Our Connections modules. Email [email protected] or phone 1300 579 963.