This is Australia’s mental health crisis

As Mental Health Week kicks into swing, sadly, what I’m reminded of is that despite the efforts to put mental health on the agenda of all Australians, suicide remains the leading cause of death for young people, as recently revealed in the ABS Cause of Death data.                                

The impact of suicide is immediate and traumatic for anyone affected by it. Particularly for the family and friends of the individual, but also for the broader community. So, with psychological distress rates rising among young people, how do we reverse this trend?

As a starting point, it’s crucial to have somewhere safe for young people to go where they can talk openly because we know that help-seeking and early intervention is a key component to suicide prevention.

When support is accessed and knowledge is gained in the early stages of distress or suicidal thinking, young people are best placed to recover quickly, and learn lifelong coping strategies so that when they experience tough times they are better equipped to manage and thrive.

Last year, close to 100,000 young Australians came to our centres for help and nearly 15,000 had experienced suicidal thoughts or behaviour. This reinforces, to me, the crucial role of services such as headspace as an entry point for young people and their families.  Not only to support young people with their mental health issues, but also in identifying those at risk of self-harm or suicide, ensuring they get the help they urgently need.

While headspace provides a secure entry point for young people who desperately need support, the reality is, we are only one part of a fragmented system. The political leadership is there but the traction on the ground for a better connected and more accountable system needs to be prioritised. I hear too often that young people are being denied access to services when their illness and levels of distress are too high for one service but not high enough for another.                  

Recent inquiries into mental health tell us that more than half of those who died by suicide had presented to services in their final six weeks of life. This is such a devastating fact because we can see that people are reaching out for help but the system is failing them in their time of need. Sadly, I know this to be true because I speak to young people who have been let down by services and bereaved parents who are struggling for answers. When I reflect on those conversations, I see there are three critical areas to address.

The first is the lack of system integration with health services.

We’re seeing young people who present with significant self-harm or suicide related behaviours being discharged from inpatient care or emergency departments with little follow-up to determine the ongoing state of their mental health, putting parents and carers at a loss. We need a system focused on follow-up support for these young people. Existing programs largely focus on adults but there’s a need for a specific service for young people, knowing that their requirements are vastly different.

The other major issue is the poor understanding and awareness of suicide within the community.

We need to squash the myth that asking someone whether they are thinking about suicide is going to make the situation worse or ‘put ideas in their head’. And we need people to be ok with asking the direct question, “Are you having thoughts about suicide?” and be ready for the answer to be ‘yes’.

Finally, we need to do a better job of guiding parents and carers who support unwell young people. What we’ve seen is that family and friends of young people experiencing mental health difficulties are often excluded from the care and do not have access to the information they need to support them, and are also not supported in their own journey.

Jason Trethowan, headspace CEO