The “Real World” of Mental Health

High school did a pretty pathetic job of preparing me for the “real world”.

Take sex ed for example. Apparently, it was supposed to give me the tools to navigate through the most fraught of human relations. In my class though, all that amounted to was a quick slideshow that skipped over masturbation and contraception because it violated the school’s “Catholic ethos”.

Just as concerning, or perhaps more so, was the complete silence surrounding youth mental health issues like anxiety or depression. The school employed a counsellor, but to this day, I remain unsure of how I was supposed to get in touch with them.

Then again, perhaps my school was a one-off, an outlier. Surely in a nation that boasts a world-class standard of education and development such as Australia, our high schools are adequately equipped to, at the very least, raise some awareness about mental health and its issues. All indications however, seem to point to a resounding no.

Instead, our exposure to mental health education is limited to rare occasions, maybe once every five years or so, when Beyond Blue can afford to put out an ad. Perhaps you’ve heard the statistics they share. If you haven’t, a quick Google Search will inform you of some very scary facts – that one in six people experience depression at some point in their lives or that, and as of 2013, one in four young Australians live every day of their lives with a form of mental illness.

As disheartening as these statistics are, there have been efforts to address them. The Federal Government’s “headspace” initiative is one example. With centres across Australia, headspace offers young people support on a variety of issues, both cost and judgement free. And yet, despite initiatives like this, the results of a recent study from Resilient Youth Australia (RYA) suggest that more is needed to combat this epidemic.

In 2014, RYA surveyed over 36,000 young Australians between grades 3 and 12. The responses of these students provide an important snapshot into their mental resilience and wellbeing. They also exemplify how some are resorting to alcohol, drugs and unwanted sex to deal with these issues.

54% of girls have a fair to low resilience when it comes to dealing with serious problems like anxiety and depression. The results were even worse for boys. Clearly, it is still common for Australian boys and girls to feel disconnected, unsupported and alienated both at home and in the schoolyard. Some might assume that these issues will just sort themselves out with time. However, as too many uni students are aware, this is not always the case.

To quote the age-old adage, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. If we really are committed to preventing mental health issues in university students, then maybe we should commit to more resources in schools to shoo away anxiety and depression early before it is too late. If not more money, then at least we should be implementing better-targeted programs.

That’s not to say all mental health presentations at schools are like this. Smaller groups like Batyr are doing an awesome job, sending young speakers to engage in real conversation with young audiences. But despite events like Civic2Surf, these organisations are always in need of more funding to continue their projects.

It’s also a lot easier to host these programs in a school environment than a university one. Homerooms, assemblies and retreats all present opportunities to make sure kids hear these messages, so that none fall through the cracks. As much as I’d love to see an ANU assembly (that’d make for next level StuPol…), there just aren’t those opportunities available at university to chat to everybody about the signs, symptoms and the prevalence of mental health issues.

I don’t know what the best way to engage with school-aged young people about these problems is. And I certainly don’t mean to decry my school. If anything, my high school experience impressed upon me just how little pay and respect we give to teachers for the mammoth tasks that rest on their shoulders. If we want to see an improvement in mental health strategies, changing our perceptions of teachers probably wouldn’t hurt. This would form just one part of better-targeted support for young people in the early stages of mental illness.

If you think you may be experiencing depression, anxiety, or another mental health problem, please contact ANU Counselling on 6125 2442, Lifeline on 13 11 14 or Beyond Blue on 1300 22 4636.