Finding a new way to say “you’re not alone”

Photo courtesy Wallpaper Flare
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With traditional supports for young people shut, youth support organisations are having to get creative to make sure help gets to those who need it. By Aaron Smith and Miranda Dawe.

More young people are suffering mental health issues because of the coronavirus, a youth counsellor says.

Jake McMillan, who has worked at the Reach Foundation since 2012, said the shutdown of schools had made it hard to keep contact with young people who were battling mental health problems, but they were working hard to find other ways.

Everything possible was being moved online, he said

“There are a lot of measures that we have to take to make sure that everyone is safe. The good thing is that all of our psychologists and a lot of our support teams can still work remotely so people can still be followed up with, which is really important.”

He said for some programs it was a tricky process. “Putting our workshops online is something that’s really new – it’s a big adjustment,” he said, for a program that was “heavily dependent on having people in a room”.

“We’re just trying to open up that honest dialogue so than even via reading what we are putting out there, it hopefully implants thoughts that, ‘hey, I can talk about this’ or ‘I’m not alone in this’.”

It still isn’t enough. “To be honest I don’t think even before the world went into this pandemic that there has been enough that we can do for young people’s health.”

While more people will suffer mental illness because of the virus lockdown, “I think there will be an increase for people who have already been experiencing mental health issues”, he said.

“A lot of people, whether they would say they were recovering or recovered, might find themselves falling back into some of those issues again.

“[They] don’t have the emotional awareness to recognise it, so right now they will probably be experiencing these issues but not necessarily be equipped with the right tools.”

According to the Black Dog Institute, a non-profit facility for diagnosis, treatment and prevention of mood disorders, about one in five Australians have a mental illness in any year, with a figure closer to one in four for teenagers.

Mr McMillan says he thinks the reality is worse.

“The [one in four] statistic is based on the number of people who are reporting it, it’s not necessarily indicative of how many people there are out there actually dealing with it,” he said.

Victorian caseworker and counsellor Cheyanne Pryor said the restrictions on support services for young people could have a substantial effect on young people.

“I think it would be crazy to think that mental health problems and crime in youths doesn’t have the very real potential to increase over this time,” she said.

The Police and Community Youth Clubs group was shut down in March when gyms and recreational centres closed as part of the national lockdown. The clubs support at-risk youths, including those who have been involved with the youth justice system.

A range of youth support missions remain open – with online counselling services rather than face to face – but Ms Pryor said she was worried that it won’t be enough.

“It might be better than nothing, this is a complex problem with no easy solution,” she said.

Ms Pryor said she wondered what more could be done to support young people through the current disruptions to their routines and sense of support.

“In a perfect world I would say police or agencies could be doing regular at-home checks, but that isn’t feasible considering police have their hands full already,” she said.

“Youth workers still need to put their health and safety first – you can’t pour from an empty cup.”

Victorian school have remained open to children who have special needs or whose parents are essential workers.

Victoria’s State of Emergency restrictions are in place until at least May 11.