Speech to Parliament - Youth Mental Health

18 October 2021

"The COVID-19 pandemic has been tough for many Australians, but it has been particularly hard on younger Australians. They have faced ongoing disruption to their education and upheaval of the social networks centred on school and university."

Address to the House of Representatives

Monday 18 October 2021

Subject: Youth Mental Health

I rise today to support the motion proposed by my colleague the member for Macquarie.

The COVID-19 pandemic has been tough for many Australians, but it has been particularly hard on younger Australians. They have faced ongoing disruption to their education and upheaval of the social networks centred on school and university. Year 12 students have had to deal with uncertainty about the timing and format of the year 12 examinations.

Young people who relied on part-time or casual work in the hospitality and entertainment sectors saw their jobs vanish in a few days last March. While these jobs slowly returned over last year, the lockdowns this year, caused by the government's quarantine and vaccination failures, have again led to widespread job losses and underemployment, which have particularly affected young people.

Compounding these problems has been anxiety about the disease itself. Younger people were at the back of the queue when it came to getting access to vaccines, and it's only in the last few months that vaccines have been readily available to them.

While the pandemic may have exacerbated the poor mental health of many younger people, all was not well at the start of 2020. The mental illness section of the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare's June 2021 report on Australia's youth brought together a range of data on the mental health of young people. It reported that, in 2013-14, 20 per cent of people aged 11 to 17 had high or very high levels of psychological distress and 14 per cent experienced a mental disorder. In 2017-18 an estimated 15 per cent of young people aged 18 to 24 experienced high or very high levels of psychological distress.

A 2017 study in the Medical Journal of Australia, by Associate Professor Sarah Hetrick and her colleagues, reported that the largest burden of disease in young people was due to mental health problems. It noted that half of all mental health disorders suffered by adults emerged by the age of 14 and three-quarters were apparent by the age of 24. The study found that if left untreated these mental health problems have high rates of recurrence and cause negative outcomes for the individual, including reduced economic productivity as well as societal costs.

Given the poor state of young people's mental health, it's reasonable to expect that the National Mental Health and Suicide Prevention Plan, agreed by the Commonwealth and all states and territories in 2017, would address this issue. Not only does it not address it, the plan does not even mention youth or young people. The lack of planning for young people's mental health translates to poor access to services.

Various studies published in the Australian and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry report that young people made relatively less use of services than older adults and that parents identified high out-of-pocket costs and long waiting times as barriers to access.

As well as these barriers to access, the study by Professor Hetrick noted that mental health services have often not been youth oriented and have restricted access depending on age, diagnosis or comorbidities. The study concludes that there has been a crisis in care, where most young people with mental health difficulties do not get the care they need, resulting in high rates of distress, functional impairment and suicidality. In the absence of appropriate services, it's not surprising that almost 80,000 young people turned up in crisis situations at emergency departments in 2019-20, according to the AIHW.

The Commonwealth government already funds two services designed for young people: Orygen and headspace. While these are both excellent services, they exemplify the problems of access. Orygen only deals with more severe mental illness, while headspace does not. Even Professor McGorry, who was central to establishing headspace, has acknowledged that there is a missing middle of young peopleโ€”those who are too sick for headspace and not sick enough for the very limited provision of care through state government services, and there are large gaps in geographic access.

The National Mental Health and Suicide Prevention Plan expires next year. There's an overwhelming body of evidence that youth mental health is a significant issue with long-term consequences and that current services are not effective in providing access to the necessary treatments and other supports. I urge the Commonwealth government to work with the states and territories to develop a new plan that includes effective services for young people. We need to get this right for our young people's future. I commend the motion to the House.

Please note - If and of these contents have raised issues for you, help is available. You can contact:

๐Ÿ“ž Beyond Blue's Coronavirus Mental Wellbeing Support Service | 1800 512 348
๐Ÿ“ž Lifeline: 131114
๐Ÿ“ž Kids Helpline | 1800 55 1800
๐Ÿ“ž MensLine Australia | 1300 78 99 78
๐Ÿ“ž Suicide Call Back Service | 1300 659 467