Despite two years of pandemic-driven concern about the impacts on youth mental health, current election commitments by the major parties on targeted mental health responses will not fix anything. In fact, it’s as though long-term investment in youth mental health has fallen by the wayside and they are not even trying.

All we have at the national level is talk of refunding school chaplaincy services, more funding for Headspace centres, telehealth and calls for higher Medicare rebates. These are not new ideas and lack the bold vision for mental health reform that is desperately needed.

While these commitments may appear worthy, they will - at best - only scratch the surface of this national crisis.

If you’re relying on state funded services, you’ll need to live in Victoria because it’s the only state doing any of the heavy lifting.  The Victorian government has just committed to a major expansion of much needed mental health services, but at the national level there is a void when it comes to serious reform and so much more needs to be done. 

We can - and must - speed up access to mental health services by young people through the creation of newer, lower-cost youth friendly approaches and start actually delivering on the 24 recommendations in the 2020 Productivity Commission report on Mental Health.

Young people who are out of school and unemployed are least likely to know how to seek help and are among the most isolated in our communities. These young people often also have little awareness of what counselling involves and while needing help, are fearful of what it entails. 

Psychological distress is highest among people who are unemployed, and greater access to support services is needed in our outer suburbs and regional centres where youth unemployment and school dropout are often statistically higher. 

We need to prioritise regions where rapid investment is most needed – like Melbourne’s western suburbs. As Youth Projects expands into Melbourne’s Western suburbs we will continue to take a holistic, client-centred approach that recognises the combination of factors facing young people experiencing unemployment and disadvantaged, insecure housing, poor mental health, family violence, isolation and poverty.

To design a better system, we must first recognise that mental illness is frequently associated with or linked to multiple other factors that need to be addressed together as a whole. Holistic approaches cut the red tape and frustration for young people who are currently forced to navigate several services to address multiple concerns through a broken system.

We also need to demystify mental health support and pathways into seeking help for young people. Diagnosis and treatment should not need to involve clipboards, offices, forms, lanyards and intimidating waiting areas.

Australia’s workforce shortage should not prevent more creative and appropriate ways to reach out to young people. We must utilise the range of skills within our reach, including peer workers, who can make genuine inroads into support access right now.

Our free mobile youth outreach service – YHOP - engages youth workers to meet young people where they are at, and on their own terms. It may be at a park bench, a local café or somewhere that the young person feels comfortable (and safe). This encourages a friendly, gentler and non-confrontational chat in familiar surroundings. Lower cost, client-centred options allow early intervention even earlier than typically possible.

YHOP is the only program of its kind in Australia, and currently is only funded to operate in the a very small pocket of the community across the Hume and Moreland LGAs.

Across Hume, YHOP has already achieved significant impact for vulnerable young people, including more than 900 supported referrals to specialised services, including mental health and housing.

Of the young people who have engaged with YHOP:

  • 35% reported an increase in wellbeing and happiness as a direct result of the program,
  • 55% re-engaged with education, training pathways or sustainable employment,
  • 33% experienced a stabilisation in their housing situation,
  • 45% reported significant improvements to their mental health

And overwhelmingly, 3 in 4 young people reported more positive and enhanced social or community engagement.

Yet despite all of this, critical services like our YHOP program in Moreland has not yet secured ongoing funding to continue delivering services beyond 2022 and may close as a result.

Funding commitments for youth mental health seemingly remains a low priority, and bereft of innovation, whilst hyper-localised and often underfunded programs like YHOP continue to carry the heavy weight of meeting young people where they are at in the meantime.

We can prevent a tsunami of entrenched problems for young people in Australia right now to prevent entering the next decade of their lives without critical supports in place. This is both lifesaving and cost saving, with an estimated $1.3B savings each year through increased economic participation alone. 

With 3 in 4 people first experiencing ill-mental health by the age of 25, designing youth-specific, more informal access to mental health support is needed urgently and is one of the most vital investments we need to make in a brighter future for all of Australia.

For any media enquiries, please call Nic Horton, Marketing & Communications Manager on 0458 911 299.

Thanks to a commitment from Hume City Council, YHOP will continued to be funded in the Hume LGA for at least the next 2 - 4 years.

Written by Melanie Raymond, OAM. As an experienced independent, non-executive director, Melanie is Chairperson at Youth Projects and holds multiple other board and committee positions including Chair of Connected Communities Melbourne, Director of the new Moreland Affordable Housing Association, Victorian Ice Taskforce and Taskforce on Rough Sleeping. In 2012, Melanie was named one of Australia’s Top 100 Most Influential Women and awarded an Order of Australia Medal in 2017. Melanie has a MA (Hons) and studied executive management at the Harvard Business School, bringing her extensive experience across policy, strategy, government, communications and media.