Adolescence through to young adulthood is a notoriously tumultuous time. And it’s getting more challenging – in Australia, psychological distress among young Australians has increased by 5.5 per cent in the past seven years (RACGP, accessed 4 June 2022). This means almost one in four young people is experiencing challenges with their mental health.
Although mental health is being acknowledged and discussed more than ever in Australia, it’s still difficult for young people and their parents and carers to know how to identify and find support for mental health concerns. That’s a problem, because if they’re not addressed, these concerns can turn into lifelong challenges.
Early intervention in settings like primary health care and schools, along with appropriate treatment, is essential. Mental health practice must change and evolve to better support young people, and it needs a strong pipeline of talented health professionals to do this. That’s where you come in.
The current state of mental health in Australian adolescents
Adolescence and young adulthood are critical developmental stages. They encompass significant changes and can leave young people vulnerable to a range of mental health concerns, including depression, anxiety and eating disorders.
The most common mental health disorder among children and adolescents is thought to be attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), followed by anxiety, depression and then conduct disorder (HealthDirect, accessed 4 June 2022).
These disorders – as well as the general state of a young person’s mental health – are influenced by intrinsic internal factors along with their experiences. This includes whether they can form secure attachments with their caregivers, as well as history of trauma and socio-economic factors such as poverty or abuse.
Our modern environment also plays a major role. In headspace’s recent National Youth Mental Health Survey, more than 40 per cent of respondents said social media was part of the reason their mental health was declining. Global issues and the pandemic were cited as well – by 16 per cent and 14 per cent of respondents respectively (headspace, accessed 10 June 2022).
Research has also shown young adults with pre-existing mental health conditions experience greater levels of psychopathology during a crisis, which is particularly relevant in the current climate of the global COVID-19 pandemic (SpringerLink, accessed 4 June 2022).
Suzanne Schultz, a psychologist, business owner and leadership training professional, says the pressure of studying throughout the pandemic was particularly hard on young people at university.
‘During the peak of COVID-19, I had a lot of students coming to me who were struggling with lack of social connectedness and isolation… trying to continue their studies by Zoom, cope with completing things and putting assignments in on time and being okay,’ she says.
With major factors like social media and global crises unlikely to disappear any time soon, timely support from trained professionals is more important than ever.
Lack of early intervention has long-term consequences
While some childhood difficulties ease with age, mental health problems in children can be a precursor to mental illness in adulthood (Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, accessed 12 June 2022).
Studies show that left untreated, childhood mental health problems can lead to a greater risk of problems at school and more reliance on social services due to homelessness or drug and alcohol dependence (Mental Health America, accessed 3 June 2022). There’s also a strong link between major depressive disorder and frequent absences from school (Young Minds Matter, accessed 12 June 22).
Given that more than 75 per cent of mental health issues develop before the age of 25, it’s clear that early intervention is key to preventing a lifelong disability from mental health issues (Black Dog Institute, accessed 13 June 2022). This means arming ourselves with best-practice screening and support services for young people, and bolstering our mental health workforce to make meaningful interventions.
Providing better support for young people benefits the whole family, says Ms Schultz.
‘Mental health issues affect the whole family, not just the person who's affected themselves. Adolescents are part of a system, they're part of a community, part of a family, part of a wider network. And so, the more connected we can be, the healthier it is.’
Overcoming access barriers
When young people – or their parents, friends, or family members – seek mental health support, they tend to reach out to primary care providers or educators (Australian Institute of Family Studies, accessed 14 June 2022). A recent study from Deakin University found that families are paying $37 million in out-of-pocket expenses for mental health care each year (Deakin University, accessed 3 June 2022).
And yet, research shows that mental health in adolescents is still severely undertreated, due to barriers such as a lack of mental health knowledge, social stigma, prohibitive costs and limited availability of professional help (SpringerLink, accessed 2 June 2022). The Young Minds Matter survey also showed that two out of five parents were unsure of where to get help for their children (Young Minds Matter, accessed 12 June 2022).
It's clear that access is an issue. The good news is, while we know technology can be detrimental to mental health, it can also help people access the care they need.
Traditional face-to-face treatment was largely interrupted due to stay-at-home orders and lockdowns through the COVID-19 pandemic. As part of its response, the Australian government expanded the Medicare Benefits Scheme to include telehealth videoconference or telephone services. This has been one of the biggest changes in mental health practice facilitated by both technology and public health orders to prevent transmission of COVID-19
This change offers a host of new opportunities, both for rural and remote young people, who are often unable to access mental health professionals locally, and for professionals who want to specialise in the mental health sector.
Opportunities in adolescent mental health
Mental health professionals are in high demand in general, and Australia is crying out for new psychiatrists, psychologists and mental health nurses to support the demand for services. In fact, in order to double the existing number of professionals, some peak bodies are calling for importing skilled mental health workers to fill the gaps (Sydney Morning Herald, accessed 5 June 2022).
Specialising in adolescent and young adult mental health is an opportunity to make meaningful, targeted interventions that set young people up for a healthy life. Career opportunities are available in a range of areas – you could train as a specialist youth psychologist, work as a counsellor in a school or university setting, or provide support to young people as a mental health nurse.
If you’re a qualified social worker or occupational therapist, you could specialise as a mental health recovery and rehabilitation worker, offering young people support towards personal recovery, such as building a sense of empowerment and finding meaning in their lives.
Or, knowing that school is a key setting for early intervention, you could take on a role as a high school counsellor. These roles require excellent communication skills and an ability to build trusting relationships with students in order to provide psychological support.
You may choose to specialise further in treating specific groups, such as First Nations Australians communities. With additional mental health training, you’d be ready to assist with health promotion and help clients access mainstream mental health services.
How you can make a difference
Many people who specialise in mental health bring a wealth of existing experience from their careers, combined with some additional postgraduate study, which can be completed in person or online.
With specialist study in adolescent mental health, you’ll learn more about the specific challenges young people face, and how you can help them set themselves up for a happy, successful future.
If you come from a related professional background, such as psychology, social work, education, occupational therapy, teaching or counselling, you probably already have many of the transferable skills you need to support young people’s mental health. These include excellent communication skills, an ability to connect with young people, and the ability to build and maintain trusting relationships.
Ready to build on your skills or make a career move?
The decision to develop your skills, specialise or pursue a new career path through postgraduate study is a personal one and one that needs to fit in with your lifestyle, especially when studying online.