Mental health issues in regional areas are commonly associated with farmers, but how do youth fare in rural and semi-rural areas?
Distance and the attraction of the city for young adults sometimes means those left behind have limited social options. This article looks at a key issue in youth mental health and how to address it: isolation.
Readers looking for the audio version of this report can listen here:
This article appears in the 11 July 2014 print edition of the Warragul & Baw Baw Citizen.
Mental health issues in regional areas are commonly associated with farmers, but how do youth fare in rural and semi-rural areas? Distance and the attraction of the city for young adults sometimes means those left behind have limited social options. This article looks at a key issue in youth mental health and how to address it: isolation.
Sally Walker is the centre manager at Headspace Central West Gippsland. Her branch of the organisation provides 12 to 25 year olds in Baw Baw and the Latrobe Valley with mental health support through drop-in centres and organised events to help combat a range of mental health issues, many related to feelings of isolation.
“What we know is isolation for young people is a big trigger around a decline in mental health, and we certainly know one of the protective factors against suicidality is ensuring that connectedness for a young person, so we know we hold that responsibility,” Sally says.
The issue is big and so is the area the branch covers. Headspace is one of the most visible services for youth suffering from mental health issues. In Warragul, the government-run service fronts onto Queen Street. But while the group does its best to provide services for the youth in the region, there are issues reaching people in the large coverage area while coping with rapid residential growth in Baw Baw.
“What we find, particularly as a Headspace centre in a regional area, is we hold a great responsibility around ensuring access for young people,” Sally says.
“What we know is young people will engage in help seeking behaviour if they feel the service is going to be easy for them to access and safe for them to access, so the advantage we have currently in our Warragul centre is we are right near the train station, so that does help many young people to access our service.
“It probably doesn’t assist for all of the area.”
In trying to overcome the issue of distance Headspace has embraced social media and technology to reach out to youth unable to reach drop-in centres.
“If we are the first service that a young person has attended, we ask how do we engage them and ensure that they stay engaged. [Sometimes] that means via our Facebook page [or via] other social media and resources we have.
“We have the capacity for outreach, so it really ensures the remoteness doesn’t impede them (youth with mental health problems) accessing [our] service and ensuring that connectedness occurs.
Surprisingly for a rapidly growing area with a large percentage of the population made up of youth, the Warragul Headspace centre is only open a few days a week.
“We currently see the challenge in Warragul is there [has been] a massive growth in the population,” Sally says.
“We would certainly be happy to run a service full time should there be the appropriate resourcing that facilitates that. We would certainly have plenty of young people coming through the doors, and we do notice already that over a third of the young people we see as a service in total [come to us] from the three days we are at Warragul, so there definitely is a demand.
“The young people that are in our Youth Advisory Group certainly indicate… the value of the service to us, so we certainly again would be able to resource that in terms of delivery if there were the appropriate funding that makes it sustainable.”
Responding to the immediate effects of mental health issues is one thing, but identifying problems and providing long-lasting treatment is where things get tricky.
Melanie Krop is a clinical psychologist based in Warragul with around 25 years of experience in child and adolescent mental health services and in private practice. In her opinion, isolation is less of an issue than it used to be thanks to technology.
She identifies mood disorders as being the most common youth mental health issue in the region.
“Mood disorders are the biggest target group in people we see, both privately and in the public system,” Melanie says.
“That’s anxiety, depression, obsessive compulsive disorders [and] things like that.
“Often we also see a smaller proportion of early psychosis, eating disorders and personality difficulties.
“I don’t think isolation is a huge problem for young people in this day and age. With the access to social media, isolation’s actually less [of an issue], however in saying that it’s also difficult in that people only seem to communicate through social media sometimes which I think is a disadvantage for young people.”
Nonetheless, physical isolation can make treating other mental health problems more difficult.
“Obviously travel is an issue, especially in the outlying areas, but I’m not really sure. Young people depend on their parents to get them to appointments and some parents are more willing than others to do that than others.
“I think it’s a credit to young people to seek help. If your tooth hurts you go to a dentist, so if your head hurts, so to speak, you go to a psychologist.
“But then I suppose I’m used to talking to people about their problems so I don’t think stigma is such a big issue. I do know that a lot of the local schools employ psychologists and councillors and young people often find it difficult to access them because people see them walking in.”
Melanie says many services have waiting lists and she often gets questions about parenting support or group programs.
“I think there’s not many of those programs in Warragul.”
But when it comes to local treatment there is a curve ball option. Literally. The Baw Baw YMCA offers plans for good mental health through physical fitness. The issue, according to manager Michael Casey, is knowing who needs those programs.
“The identification of an issue is probably a major problem. It’s an issue here, but I would say it’s a societal problem,” Michael says.
“We would have a very small percentage of people come to us and say ‘I’m suffering from this’ or ‘I’m experiencing this, what have you got?’ Tends to be that those things are hidden and I don’t think that’s surprising to anyone. But if we are able to work with those people long enough in our programs and services then there perhaps comes a time when we can identify those things and it gives us the opportunity to look at ways we can help develop that person.
“I think there certainly is some work that we can do as part of the Baw Baw Shire to encourage that first step. We’re an access for all centre, we’re an access for all community, we really promote that and look at further reducing any barriers that still exist.
People wanting to contact Headspace to discuss mental health issues can call 5136 8300 or visit 34 Queen Street, Warragul. Those requiring assistance with personal anxiety, depression or stress can contact Lifeline on 13 11 14 or Beyond Blue on 1300 22 4636, or at beyondblue.org.au.