Across the globe, COVID-19 remains as real and as prevalent today as it was 12 months ago. Here in Australia, where my hometown has just gone into lock down for the first time in a year, it is an ever-present spectre.
It remains clear that our mental health and wellbeing is and will continue to be negatively impacted.
From the outset of COVID-19, we knew that mental health had to be given equal priority. Those of us in the mental health sector recognised that most Australians were going to face mental health challenges at some point during the pandemic and that social connection was going to be a strong protective element for maintaining mental health and wellbeing. Governments and the mental health sector coordinated delivery of increased services and a high volume of awareness raising around mental health self-care as well as help-seeking. Despite this, prolonged lockdowns and the uncertain nature of the pandemic are contributing to heightened levels of anxiety and distress within our communities and exacerbating the severity of symptoms for those who already live with mental illness.
Young people are particularly susceptible. In Australia, even before the pandemic, we’ve seen an ever-increasing level of psychological challenge in our children and youth. Add to this the complex levels of uncertainty caused by the pandemic and the consequent impacts on their education, home life, work and friendships, and it becomes obvious that young people need support for their mental health now, more than ever.
Our research and monitoring of service use tells us children (5-11 years), young people (12-15 & 16-25 years), and their parents and carers are experiencing increased levels of distress and adverse mental health impacts. Worryingly they are also experiencing heightened levels of self-harm and suicide ideation, resulting in increased presentations to emergency departments. Almost one in three (30%) younger Australians (aged 18 to 34 years) reported experiencing high or very high levels of psychological distress in June 2021, compared with 18% of people aged 35 to 64 years and 10% of people aged 65 years and over during that same period[i].
Here at the National Mental Health Commission we know that we need to build self-confidence in our children and young people. We need to help them, and their parents and carers, build self-agency and learn to reach out for help, both from each other and from professional services, when they need it.
It was time to act proactively to respond to a heightened level of need, and to provide the resources, information and support that parents and young people were telling us would best support them.
Over the past five weeks we partnered with Australia’s national mental health organisations, who specialise in supporting children, young people, parents and carers (including ReachOut, Butterfly Foundation, Orygen, batyr, headspace, Beyond Blue and Kids Helpline) and worked closely with young people and their parents, to develop a first-of-its-kind campaign to harness the power of social media to engage parents and young people alike. It was a rapid coordinated response to an immediate need by combining our efforts and resources to present a united national approach.
#ChatStarter connects, engages, and promotes the benefits of supportive conversations with young people and children who are going through a difficult time right now. #ChatStarter intentionally encourages people to use the tips and resources freely available in a single online location at the Department of Health’s Head to Health website to help them have supportive conversations, and to share and promote the benefits with their communities online. It also encourages young Australians and parents to create their own content on social media with instructions on how they start chats safely with others.
#ChatStarter is about more than just starting a conversation, it’s about building a connection. It encourages people to connect, engage and then share their experiences in a safe, thoughtful and meaningful way. It encourages people to share how they connect with each other on their preferred social media platform, while directing people to a library of useful resources and tools, held at the Federal Government’s popular Head to Health platform.
We all have the power to support others and make people feel part of a community. When physical distance restrictions are the norm for so many, the simple act of connection becomes that much more important.
I encourage everyone to get on-board and share what works for you and remind those around you that you care and that you are willing to listen and help.
We can get through this together. We are grateful to Facebook Australia for providing support as a major partner to reach millions of Australians across the country using Facebook and Instagram new and timely program.
Find out more about #ChatStarter HERE.
If you, or someone you know needs support, services are available 24/7:
- Lifeline: 13 11 14
- KidsHelpline: 1800 55 1800
- Coronavirus wellbeing support service: 1800 512 348