Students’ mental health concerns double since 2015 – survey

by Brett Henebery07 Dec 2017
A new survey released today paints an alarming picture of mental health issues among young people in Australia.

A record 24,055 young people aged 15-19 took part in Mission Australia’s Youth Survey 2017, which found that mental health issues topped the list of issues for the first time in the survey’s history.

Around one-third of young people (33.7%) identified mental health as a national concern, more than doubling since 2015 (14.9%).

So what is behind this alarming trend?

One possible clue can be found in research out of the United States, where Jean Twenge, Professor of Psychology at San Diego State University, said depression and anxiety in teens began spiking in 2011 and 2012 – when more than half of Americans got a smartphone.

“The arrival of the smartphone has radically changed every aspect of teenagers’ lives; from the nature of their social interactions to their mental health,” Professor Twenge wrote in The Atlantic.

“There is compelling evidence that the devices we’ve placed in young people’s hands are having profound effects on their lives – and making them seriously unhappy.”

But is this also the case in Australia?

According to Associate Professor Josephine Anderson, Clinical Director at Black Dog Institute, the causes of mental illness are complex and cannot be attributed to one single factor alone.

“We know that anxiety disorders in children and adolescents can emerge from a biological predisposition, modelling of maladaptive behaviours to deal with a parent’s anxiety, untreated mental illness in a parent, or violence, abuse and neglect in the home,” Anderson told The Educator.

Anderson said schools have a key role to play in helping to prevent or intervene early in anxiety and depression amongst children and adolescents and pointed to three ways that principals can help.

“Principals can use evidence-based strategies to build mental health literacy, encourage teachers and counsellors to be proactive in getting help early for children who may be anxious or depressed and take a whole-of-school, zero-tolerance approach to bullying,” Anderson said.

The Black Dog Institute has developed school based face-to-face interventions and also advises schools on free, readily accessible e-mental health interventions suitable for children and adolescents.

Principals Australia Institute (PAI) CEO, Paul Geyer, said today’s children live in a “constantly connected culture” thanks to smartphones and social media.

“This can lead us to compare ourselves to others to a sometimes obsessive degree, and also means it’s difficult to truly escape unhealthy interactions that could previously be left at the school gate,” Geyer told The Educator.

In an effort to tackle these issues, Geyer said the PAI’s Family-School Engagement workshop will be offered in 2018 as a professional learning opportunity for principals to network with peers, share ideas, and learn about best practice in this important area of school management.

Mission Australia CEO, James Toomey, said schools can play an important role in ‘destigmatising’ mental health and encouraging young people to seek support when they need it.

“They can also help to develop knowledge and skills around mental health, by providing opportunities for young people to have discussions about difficult mental health issues, such as when it is ethical to break a friend’s trust, and to learn skills around navigating available support options for themselves or their friends,” Toomey told The Educator.

“We know from our annual Mission Australia Youth Survey that many young people facing challenges in their lives reach out to friends and family for support.”

Toomey said those family members and friends need to know how to navigate the bewildering variety of services and information sources that are available, and be provided with targeted information about ‘mental health first aid’ and other practical supports that exist.

“Schools can be an avenue for getting that information to the people who need it,” he said.


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