A world-leading mental health program aimed at heading off self-harm, anxiety and depression in young people will be rolled out to ACT Year 9 students next year.
Delivered by multiple agencies and funded by the Commonwealth, the Youth Aware of Mental Health program (YAM) is part of the Black Dog Institute’s LifeSpan Framework and will be pitched at 14 to 16-year-olds.
The announcement comes as a new report by Mission Australia and the Black Dog Institute indicates that one-in-four young people in the ACT say they are experiencing mental health challenges, with nearly half of 17-year-olds reporting that they are facing these issues.
Young females in the ACT are more than twice as likely than males to experience psychological distress, and a much higher proportion of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander young people are meeting the criteria for psychological distress than their non-Indigenous peers.
Mission Australia’s Can we talk? Seven-year youth mental health report – 2012-2018, co-authored with Black Dog Institute experts, investigated rates of psychological distress experienced by young people in Australia aged 15 to 19.
The report says nearly half of 17-year-olds in the ACT report experiencing psychological distress (47.7 per cent compared with 16.8 per cent for 15-year-olds, 26.9 per cent for 16-year-olds and 30.8% for 18 and 19-year-olds).
Almost one-in-three young females in the ACT say they’re experiencing mental health challenges, compared with over one-in-eight young males. Since 2013, the report has shown higher rates of psychological distress in young females in the ACT than young males.
More than four-in-10 (42.9 per cent) Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander young people in the ACT report experiencing psychological distress, compared with 25.3 per cent for non-Indigenous young people.
Announcing the new youth mental health program, Minister for Mental Health Shane Rattenbury said 70 per cent of mental illness and suicidal behaviours began between the ages of 12 to 25 years.
He said YAM was designed to empower young people to learn coping and problem-solving skills, gain knowledge about mental health, build resilience, promote early intervention and encourage those struggling to cope to seek help.
“Trained YAM instructors take students through guided role-play sessions, covering six central themes, including stress and crisis, depression and suicidal thoughts, helping a friend in need, self-help and where to seek advice,” he said.
“A key benefit of YAM is no hierarchy between instructors, helpers or students, which provides a safe, non-judgmental space to explore problems that are important to young people, encouraging them to come to their own decisions through shared discussion and learning.”
European trials had shown YAM to reduce the number of times young people think about taking their own life and actual suicide attempts, reduce depression and anxiety, and help them to make healthy lifestyle choices.
The program has been adapted by the Black Dog Institute for Australian school students and has since been delivered to more than 11,000 students over the past two years as part of the NSW-based LifeSpan trial.
LifeSpan Senior Implementation Manager at Black Dog Institute Michael Cook said the three-week program involved a face-to-face workshop delivered in normal school hours over five one-hour sessions.
He said the outside facilitators did not have an existing relationship with students and could maintain confidentiality. “They try to create an open atmosphere with the students so they can share their own stresses and concerns and coping mechanisms for overcoming the common pressures in life,” Mr Cook said.
The program will be available across all public, Catholic and Independent schools across the ACT, and while not compulsory, the take-up so far in NSW had been very strong.
Black Dog Institute Director and Chief Scientist Professor Helen Christensen said global research had found that over 75 per cent of mental health issues developed before the age of 25, and these could have lifelong consequences.
“We are still in the dark as to why mental health and suicide risk has increased in our current cohort of youth, a finding that is not unique to Australia,” she said.
“Adolescence is a critical time in which to intervene, but we also know that young people experiencing psychological distress can be harder to reach. This report shows that young people in distress will seek help directly from the internet. As such, we need to continue to provide online and app-based tools that may be a key part of the solution. We also need to catch the problems upstream by prioritising early intervention and prevention efforts.”
The report found overall that stigma and embarrassment, fear and a lack of support were the three most commonly cited barriers that prevent young people from seeking help.
The top issues of personal concern for young Australians experiencing psychological distress were coping with stress, mental health and school or study problems. There was also a high level of concern about other issues including body image, suicide, family conflict and bullying/emotional abuse.
The YAM program is being implemented by the ACT Health Directorate, the Office of Mental Health and Wellbeing and ACT Education, in partnership with the Black Dog Institute, and is funded through the Commonwealth Government’s Community Health and Hospitals Program.