Earlier this year, Campbell High School student Ryan heard some classmates had been struggling with mental health issues for the past two years.
He had no idea. The insidious nature of mental health issues means it is not often talked about out loud, let alone at school among peers.
But Ryan said that is now starting to change with programs like Youth Aware of Mental Health (YAM), which teaches students how to identify and cope with mental health problems. It also provides a safe space for students to share their own experiences if they want to.
“A lot of people could be feeling a certain way and have symptoms of depression, but not know what depression is, so they could just think it will pass over,” he said.
“They can now identify what they are feeling, so it was a good way to allow them to find out what is going on.
“When the first person shared, it allowed other people to share, and it became an open discussion which was really important … to help figure out what would happen in those situations and how we could deal with it.”
Elsie said it was gripping to hear other students talk openly about their own experiences and struggles, something that was rarely, if ever, talked about at school.
“Everyone wants to pretend they don’t have [mental health problems], but it was interesting to hear that everyone was experiencing similar things, so no one had to feel humiliated because it is so common,” she said.
“I didn’t expect some people to talk, but they talked about it, which was interesting to see.”
But for Jayden, the program’s biggest advantage was being able to better identify mental health problems in his mates and know where to direct them if they need help.
“After this program, I was able to tell when my friends were more down, a bit depressed maybe, and I have been able to help them with that and help them get better,” he said.
“Before the program, I did not know what I was doing – I just tried my best – but after the program, I was able to help them a lot better. I know where to contact people if [my mates] are not feeling good, and I can pick up when they are down.
“I know some of my friends still are not OK, and I am helping them get through that.”
The program is delivered in the classroom by an instructor and volunteers and includes open discussions, worksheets and role-playing activities.
Posters and take-home resources also provide information about identifying signs of distress in peers and addresses suicidal behaviour in young people by focusing on prevention and early support.
The free program is delivered to over 3000 Year 9 students every year. Around 2200 Year 9 students from 14 high schools completed it in the ACT last year.
A further 900 students have since completed the program.
Mental Health Minister Emma Davidson said the program taught students how important mental health supports are and helped young Canberrans become more aware of their mental health and that of their peers.
“It is important for everyone in our community to have access to mental health supports in places which suit their needs,” she said.
Education and Youth Affairs Minister Yvette Berry said the well-being of students was a priority for ACT public schools.
“There are 81 psychologists working across our public school system as part of well-being teams in schools, along with other allied health workers, that can be made up of a youth worker, social worker and school youth health nurse.
“The Youth Aware of Mental Health Program is a really great addition and it’s wonderful to see so many students taking part,” Ms Berry said.
The program is delivered by the Office for Mental Health and Wellbeing in collaboration with Mental Illness Education ACT and the Black Dog Institute.
If you or someone you know struggles with their mental health, you can call Lifeline’s 24-hour support line on 13 11 14.