Don’t take this the wrong way, but I wish you didn’t come to our chats anymore. I wish I didn’t see your username pop up in the sidebar.
I wish you didn’t ask me how I was. I wish I didn’t hear how hard your week was been. I wish I didn’t have to provide strategies to get back on track. I wish you didn’t have to endure a pandemic when enduring life was already hard enough.
I wish I didn’t see you grow within the chats to learn the guidelines, to call yourself a ‘regular now.’ I wish I wasn’t proud of your progress.
I wish instead, that you didn’t need me. That you didn’t need us.
I wish that your 6-10pm on a weekday was spent with a tricky homework problem or playing board games with family.
And I wish you knew that despite all of this, I’m glad you came. Because although I’m here to help you, you have helped me. To learn about your struggles and to learn about my own.
I work as an online peer support moderator, spending one or two nights each week engaging with young people across Australia in online chats, with a team of other like-minded young people. I’m not a trained mental health professional but my experience has trained me to lend an ear to other young people who want someone to listen and understand.
I began peer support in the middle of 2019, unaware of what the following year would throw at us. I began peer support in the context of supporting a family member and my own personal experience of anxiety. I was one of many Australians who turned to their screens in need of connection and support. Our peer support chats were no different.
COVID saw a greater number of young people using our chats, for a greater number of times than usual. Even in August, months into the pandemic, we were seeing increasing numbers of views, users and messages.
These peer support chats weren’t alone in seeing increased engagement from young people, with countless services including Kids Helpline, ReachOut, Beyond Blue and the Butterfly Foundation seeing similar or greater growth in access. The Black Dog Institute released a paper detailing evidence and recommendations regarding mental health in a COVID19 infected world, noting the increased risk of the unemployed and casualised workforce during times of economic instability and pandemics.
Unfortunately, young people are usually synonymous with this workforce. In June during initial easing of restrictions, about 40 percent of young people were concerned about their mental health. YouthInsight found the key stressors were family health, studies and the economy. Unfortunately, even when things were “improving” over half of the group felt depressed, with a similar proportion feeling anxious and afraid as a result of the pandemic. While mental health problems increased across the population, the increases were most substantial in those aged 18 to 24, according to Australian National University’s Professor Ben Edwards.
Youth mental health isn’t something we can place a band-aid on…
Young people already experienced higher rates of mental illness and are more prone to isolation. This is a problem, exacerbated, not created by a global pandemic and the solutions need to persist even when we aren’t facing one. Youth mental health isn’t something we can place a band-aid on with 10 more counselling sessions. Instead, it’s about using the added urgency of a global pandemic to find innovative youth-specific mental health support opportunities. A study reviewing the impacts of COVID-19 on those contacting Kids Helpline shows many of those seeking help did so in the context of pre-existing challenges intensified by the impacts of the pandemic. There is no doubt there are and will be lessons to learn about delivering digital services in a youth-centred way.
There is evidence that technology-enabled services including apps, telehealth and online treatment benefit those with anxiety, providing an accessible means to seek support, advice and strategies without facing the stresses of attending in-person. In an increasingly casualised workforce, with many young people juggling multiple jobs alongside study and personal commitments, the necessary flexibility that digital services provide cannot be understated, along with the ability to seek specialist treatment where it is not geographically available. However, whilst many benefit from the digital version, I’ve heard from countless young people craving the face-to-face help they were receiving prior to COVID.
… important young people aren’t treated as people “to be looked after.”
The second area of growth is ensuring strategies are youth-centred. As a young person, “youth-centred” is something we see thrown around very often, despite inadequate investment into youth consultation and co-design. During and emerging from the global pandemic it is important young people aren’t treated as people “to be looked after.” Instead, we need to be involved in the decisions about our healthcare and our future – from upstream education and economic support down to models of support.
This means involvement in both policy and direct service delivery. Youth peer support has allowed young people to connect with others who experience similar challenges, minimising both the physical isolation of pandemic restrictions and the isolation that comes with the stigma of mental illness. I work in a team of young people, led by a young person, in a youth mental health organisation and there is honestly nothing more empowering than being able to own our journeys. Organisations such as YLab put young people at the centre of consultation, from unemployment, to gendered violence and mental health. As the Youth Health Forum, we have specifically been funded to upskill and engage the current generation of young consumer advocates.
This ownership, this youth-centred approach is crucial to ensure any strategies aimed at youth health access as we approach a “COVID-normal” hits the mark. I learn so much from the young people I work with and I hope that Australia can learn from how young people have responded to COVID-19, the services they’ve accessed and the success of these to pave a stronger pathway post-pandemic.
About the author
Jasmine Elliot is a Young Leader with the Youth Health Forum. Having grown up in Gladstone, QLD and as a third year medical student placed in Bendigo, Victoria, Jasmine is particularly passionate about access to health care in rural areas, working as the Vice Chair External of the Australian Medical Students’ Association Rural Health Committee. As an eheadspace Peer Support Moderator she uses her lived experience of mental illness to work with young people from around Australia, helping them find support, reduce stigma and minimise isolation.
Mental Health Ramifications of COVID-19: The Australian context – Black Dog Institute