The future of mental health services: what is it without youth voices?

When first asked to write this article I asked myself “why did they choose me? I’m just a young person with no health experience in this area”. As I reflected further, I realised this is how many young people feel when faced with advocating for themselves and others in the health and mental health sectors in Australia. Between managing social, and financial barriers to accessing care, and dealing with navigating a system that many adults struggle to navigate; the thought of attempting to access support is often incredibly daunting. Throw in high costs to access most mental health services or long waiting lists to access free services and it makes it almost impossible for some young people to get support. These people are often the ones who need these services the most. So how can we support them?

Speaking as a young person who works closely with other young people, the most popular and well-known mental health service in Australia is Headspace. We see campaigns for Headspace at school, around town, at GPs offices; their posters are everywhere. So, I was very disheartened to learn when I attempted to access support from them at university that they had closed to new patients. As a young person only knowing that avenue to accessing support, I felt stuck. Stuck in the pit my mental illness had dug in my life without a torch to guide me.

… so afraid I would be trading mental wellness for food, and a roof over my head.

I was lucky that I had savings I could use to access private psychological care. Care that cost me my entire payslip each week, care that made me more financially stressed, care I very quickly stopped accessing because I was so afraid I would be trading mental wellness for food and a roof over my head. I am not alone in these fears. It is far too common to hear from young people that they didn’t or couldn’t access mental health support for fear it would bankrupt them if they did. Those in desperate need of support, even those not in crisis, often don’t have six months left that they can wait for a spot to open in a free service. They need help now.

This is not to say Headspace is the only organisation working to combat the issue of expensive mental health support, but it is the only one most young people know about. This presents a problem: what happens when, just like the Headspace I tried to access, Headspace centres are too full and cannot take anyone else? What happens to those young people who have grown up being told to go to Headspace whenever they are experiencing mental health issues? Where else can we go? If communication doesn’t exist between young people and a mental health service, how can that service support them?

Going back to the topic of barriers to support. Those barriers are often also contributors to the reasons young people might need mental health support. From financial struggle and instability, separation from family, study pressures, major world events, difficulties navigating new adulthood, discrimination, disability, and social pressures (to name a few). There are many things that may contribute to or trigger a period of mental ill-health. Personally, the compounding struggles of moving thousands of kilometres away from my family and friends to attend university, combined with difficulties finding work, financial instability, difficulty accessing Centrelink support, struggle navigating my gender and sexual identity, and a major bout of pre-existing social anxiety made my entry into adulthood treacherous. While all the above issues impacted my mental health, they were also the things that stopped me from accessing support until I was given the choice between losing my place at university, and therapy. I was lucky enough to have some savings with which I saw a private psychologist. In return I lived off $50 a fortnight and couldn’t afford anything else, eventually dropping the psychologist when I concluded that it was making my mental health worse and sending me deeper into poverty. I never returned to therapy and eventually left my studies to focus on improving my mental health and getting full-time work.

… young people need to be treated as major players in the policies, procedures, and funding of the mental health sector…

How can we stop this from being the path other young people have to struggle through? I strongly believe there should have been mechanisms in place to support me before I got to the point where I required a psychologist. A lack of community service support to aid my transition into adulthood, employment and university increased my anxiety and depression, that I am sure of. The way I see it, we cannot solve the issue of overcrowding in free and bulk-billed mental health services unless we also work to solve some of the socioeconomic reasons why someone would end up requiring those services. If multiple people are falling down a flight of wet stairs and ending up in hospital every week, we don’t give the hospital more money and allow the problem to persist, we fix the stairs. Why is that not a major focus for policymakers around mental health?

Young people continually advocate for themselves and others in the mental health space. They stand up for friends, educate themselves on mental health issues, and regularly identify issues and inefficiencies in the system that nobody else has identified. To work to solve the issues I’ve spoken about today, young people need to be treated as major players in the policies, procedures, and funding of the mental health sector, and the health sector. Young people should be sitting on boards, consulted on funding decisions, and allowed to participate. Youth participation is about providing the means for young people to share their voice, and then treating that voice with respect and acknowledging the experience that all young people have in life. Policymakers need to start taking young people seriously and not just trying, but actively involving youth voice in all decisions made that will affect young people.

               “Nothing about us without us”

It is a quote used often by many communities and it holds equal weight in this discussion. If a decision is going to be made that will affect the life of any young person, they should have the right to weigh in on that decision. Whether that is about where funding is going, what projects are being run, or how mental health policy is created and implemented; young people should be involved. There is no excuse for not involving young people, there are thousands of us out there calling to be involved, to contribute to the conversation, and aid in policy development in the health sector. To support the future of healthcare for young people, you must first support the young people who will make up the future of healthcare. Otherwise, what kind of future is there?

 About the author

Portrait of the authorFranklin Hooper is a young mental health and LGBTQIA+ advocate originally from rural NT, now living in Melbourne. Since the age of 17 he has worked to advocate for the inclusion of young people’s voices in all areas of government and policy as well as pushing for the improvement of community services to support mental health services. He has recently worked with UNICEF Australia as a young ambassador to advocate for this and many other issues facing young Australians. His background is in youth work, research, advocacy, project management, and not-for-profit management.