Mental illness accounts for 16% of the global burden of disease and injury for youth aged 10-19. One in seven Australian young people are affected by a mental disorder, with a recent report finding that Australian youth were five times less likely to seek help at times of psychological distress.
Mental illness in young people can affect core areas such as education, achievement, relationships, and occupational success. The prevalence of mental health concerns has increased among children and adolescents due to the COVID-19 pandemic, with mental health services struggling to keep up.
A Headspace report conducted during the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic found approximately one in three young people experienced high levels of psychological distress. In Victoria, there was a 72% increase in 2020 of the number of serious self-harm and suicidal ideation presentations in emergency departments for young people, and an increase of 23% of mental health concerns presented in emergency departments compared with the previous year.
These statistics show the disturbing incline of youth mental health problems, highlighting that more effort is needed for support and prevention.
Stigma towards mental illness, and a lack of mental health education, present a barrier to youth seeking help for mental health problems. However, research suggests that young people want to learn about mental health and coping strategies in school.
Mental health encompasses more than mental illness; it includes educating people on how to nurture mental wellbeing, and seek help if necessary.
As the World Health Organisation states: “Mental health is a state of wellbeing in which an individual realises his or her own abilities, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively, and is able to make a contribution to his or her community.”
In this sense, mental health collectively includes prevention, promotion, and treatment. Until recently, mental health has followed a medical model, mostly associated with illness and treatment, rather than prevention and promotion.
Mental health literacy
Mental health literacy has evolved in the past 20 years since first proposed by Anthony Jorm, and refers to knowledge of mental health (including how to promote positive mental health), and help-seeking/treatment options.
Components of mental health promotion and prevention programs such as learning about coping strategies, mental health problems, and increasing self-efficacy and resilience are aspects of mental health literacy that are associated with improved overall mental health.
When considering the high prevalence of mental illness in children and adolescents in Australia, it seems logical to focus on preventative approaches incorporating mental health literacy.
There’s a need to move away from the narrow focus on absence of mental illness, and towards promotion of positive mental health. This could equip children and adolescents with tools and knowledge that may potentially decrease the prevalence of mental illness in the future.
Schools provide a safe learning environment
Schools have been established as an optimal space for learning, and young people spend the majority of their time in school. Therefore, incorporating mental health literacy programs in schools could solve issues of transportation and access that often inhibit young people’s involvement in such programs.
Experts say mental health should be a priority in schools in 2021. The Mental Health Practitioners initiative began in July 2019, and provides funding to Victorian public schools to employ a mental health practitioner. This is part of the $65.5 million investment from the Victorian government in student health and wellbeing initiatives in schools.
Schools provide an optimal setting for health promotion initiatives for children and adolescents, so why is there a lack of school-based mental health education?
Some leading researchers in the field have called for mental health literacy research to link with how to change help-seeking behaviour and improve mental health. Many propose this be a widespread goal to increase the uptake and acceptability of mental health literacy among the population.
Research shows that teachers/educators lack confidence and training to effectively support child and adolescent mental health. Additionally, studies of school-based programs targeting mental health literacy for children and adolescents are limited.
Here’s how we can support the mental health of young people
Mental health literacy programs need to be implemented and evaluated for youth to increase the evidence base supporting programs within the Australian setting. International studies, such as the evaluation of the Youth Education and Support program in the US have found promising results on increasing mental health literacy for youth in an educational setting.
While teachers may not have the time or competency to deliver such a program, mental health practitioners placed in schools may have capacity.
The recognition of the need for mental health support in schools, and investment from the government is a step in the right direction, though currently school-based mental health literacy programs appears to be a neglected opportunity. Educating young people through mental health literacy programs in school with a preventative approach could lead to positive mental health and better life outcomes.
Our research team in the Faculty of Education at Monash is seeking to do just that – we aim to examine and validate a youth-centred school-based mental health program.
Young people’s experiences and knowledge of mental health and wellbeing are at the heart of the prevention program that will be established to suit the Australian context responding to the increase in youth mental health challenges during and post-COVID-19.