This time last year, proud Waywurru girl, Brittany Paxton from Wangaratta never imagined she would be working in her dream job, discovering more about her culture through native foods and surrounded by a supportive team.
Due to extreme anxiety and stress issues in her final year of school, she was forced to not complete her exams.
"31.6% of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander respondents met the criteria for probable serious mental illness, compared to 22.2% for non-Indigenous youth."
“A few kids in my class decided to spread rumours about me and were really nasty. It got to the point where I couldn’t come to school anymore,” she said.
“As the work load increased, more stress came about and I was also dealing with personal problems too. As a result I would skip school, my mum tried to make me go but I couldn’t cope with the anxiety and pressure."
Unfortunately for school children like Brittany, these circumstances aren’t rare.
Youth in psychological distress
The findings highlight that almost one in four young people in 2016 are meeting the criteria for probable serious mental illness and young females are twice as likely as males to report high psychological distress.
Mission Australia’s CEO, Catherine Yeomans, says there’s an alarming number of young people facing serious mental illness, often in silence and without accessing the help they need.
“The effects of mental illness at such a young age can be debilitating and incredibly harmful to an individual’s quality of life, academic achievement, and social participation both in the short term and long term,” she said.
"Early intervention prevention programs need to be culturally appropriate and age sensitive as well. What we know from other data is that the rates of young people in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities who are experiencing psychological stress or thoughts of suicide is continually on the rise."
Catherine has worked in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities with children as young as 10, having suicidal thoughts.
“It’s very confronting, we’re a national organisation and I’ve travelled to various regions and spoken to communities who say there is simply not enough early intervention programs, so we must have investment so we can support our young people.”
Annually, thousands of young Australians participate in Mission Australia’s Youth Survey. The poll collects information on a broad range of issues, including levels of psychological distress in young people.
The Five Year Mental Health Youth Report presents the findings of the past five years on the rates of psychological distress experienced by young Australians, aged 15-19.
Friends, parents and the Internet were the main sources of help for young people with a probable serious mental illness. Brittany says she was lucky enough to have the support of her family.
“It got to the point where I couldn't handle anything. I avoided the school councillor and tutor. I knew I needed help so I spoke to my family," she said
“We tried a few different things to help me, I visited psychologists, naturopaths, kinesiologists and that really helped me speak about my struggles and work through different solutions to cope with stress.”
This also gave Britt the courage to discuss career options with her mum and sister, who happened to suggest becoming involved with Charcoal Lane, a Mission Australia social enterprise restaurant that provides guidance and opportunity to young people, many of whom are Aboriginal, and in need of a fresh start in life.
“I was so intrigued by the native food and being able to relate everything to my culture and assist my community by cooking meals and learning about the food," she said.
“Now I am coping with my anxiety and stress. Of course I still have my doubts here and there, but I am proactive about seeking regular counselling,” she says.
Charcol Lane links their students to ongoing support such as companies like headspace, which provides a Koori counsillor for youth seeking assistance.
Charcol Lane Project Manager, Troy Crellin has been able to watch Brittany develop more confidence, not only in herself but also her abilities.
“Brittany has been able to connect with a peer group with strong lasting relationships with other students which I think is a really positive experience. It’s amazing how people can connect with each other very quickly, it’s beautiful to watch,” he said.
“Charcoal Lane connects to culture through food, we draw our strengths from every part of ourselves and Brittany now is connected to herself.”
Brittany has just completed a certificate three in cookery; she now is being interviewed for a diploma in youth work with ACU’s Koori unit. She says her main objective is to focus in youth work where she can discuss her experiences and passion for culture, community and youth work.
“I now want to share my story with other young people so I can offer support that’s culturally appropriate, if I can do it, anyone can!"
Troy says most schools can’t provide culturally appropriate assistance which is what really makes a difference.
“We have more than 30 young people coming through this program per year from various remote communities and we partner with Indigenous elders who we utilise as well as our students, to help guide our program. It’s the community what makes up who we are and what we are.”
Catherine says if there is no appropriate action for Indigenous youth, the numbers will only get worse.
"Without any investment or focus on the evidence based support needed, we may not see too much of a shift... But I hope in 5 years time we see the statistics drop drastically and all children happy in life," she said.
“That can only happen if we get the right funding, and early intervention and prevention for all young people across the country, no matter where they live. We need to make sure we listen to the children and support them to ensure a better, brighter future.”
Brittany has an important message for any Indigenous young person suffering from mental health issues and feeling lost in life.
“People just have to know that there is someone out there, try a few different things first and there will be something there for someone that they can connect with and finally grow as a person, figure out who they are an what hey want,” she said.
“Its important to know that high school isn’t the end all and be all. If you don’t get the marks you can still have a future. It took me until I was out of school to realise that. You don’t have to go to uni, there are so many other options.”
Key Report Findings
- Almost one in four young people met the criteria for having a probable serious mental illness – a significant increase over the past five years (rising from 18.7% in 2012 to 22.8% in 2016).
- Across the five years, females were twice as likely as males to meet the criteria for having a probable serious mental illness. The increase has been much more marked among females (from 22.5% in 2012 to 28.6% in 2016, compared to a rise from 12.7% to 14.1% for males).
- Young people with a probable serious mental illness reported they would go to friends, parents and the internet as their top three sources of help. This is compared to friends, parents and relatives/family friends for those without a probable serious mental illness.
- In 2016, over three in ten (31.6%) of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander respondents met the criteria for probable serious mental illness, compared to 22.2% for non-Indigenous youth.
- Report found a greater proportion of young Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people hospitalised.
- 42% of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children revealed concerns around suicide, compared to 31% non-Indigenous.