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The declining mental health of our young people
At first glance it may seem as if young people have largely escaped the effects of the pandemic. It’s generally accepted that children and adolescents are less likely to contract COVID-19, and if they do, their symptoms are usually milder than for adults. With so much focus on protecting older and more vulnerable people it’s easy to overlook the impact of the pandemic on younger people.
Research has shown that young people have been among the hardest hit financially by the impact of COVID-19. What’s more, the pandemic has accelerated a decline in the mental health of children and adolescents. Some of those who experienced lockdowns and separation from family and friends found it hard to cope.
Here’s what you can do and where you can go for more help if you, or a young person you know, needs mental health support.
If you or someone close to you is having suicidal thoughts right now, call the emergency services on 000, contact Lifeline on 13 11 44 or call the Suicide Call Back Service on 1300 659 467.
The mental health of children and teenagers
The two most common mental health issues for children and teenagers in Australia are attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and anxiety. In the last Young Minds Matter national survey (2013-14) almost one in seven children and adolescents experienced a mental health disorder.
More recently, a four-year Melbourne study of more than 1,000 young children found a disturbing 3% incidence of self-harm in children at primary school.
There’s no doubt that the global pandemic has exacerbated mental health issues. The Victorian Agency for Health Information reported a sharp rise in the number of teenagers needing emergency care for serious self-harm and suicidal ideation – the dangerous thought patterns that can lead children to think about or attempt suicide.
During the final six weeks of the second lockdown in Victoria, an average of 269 young people a week were seen at emergency departments because of mental health concerns, which represents a 23% increase over the same period the previous year. There was a 72% increase in the number of under 18s presenting to emergency departments for serious self-harm and suicidal ideations, an increase in calls to Beyond Blue, and a 40% increase in ambulance transfers to paediatric mental health facilities.
The statistics are worrying.
“Children’s brains are still developing, and we know that the effects of trauma on this younger group can actually be quite significant.” Dr Penny Burns, Chair of the Royal Australian College of GPs Specific Interests Disaster Medicine Network. 1
The impact of COVID-19 on young people and teenagers
Australia has been spared the levels of transmission experienced by some other countries. However, the actions we took to limit the spread of the virus dramatically altered the lives of our children.
Schooling, home life, sports activities, socialising and family interactions were all interrupted, altered or stopped, and the change happened practically overnight. Children weren’t allowed to visit or hug their grandparents, play with their friends or go to school or college. For a time, many parents were forced to work from home and attempt to home school their children at the same time.
The change in the lives of their parents, family and friends – as well as in their own lives – made some young people feel extremely worried or anxious, stressed or overwhelmed.
It’s also worth remembering that it’s easy for children to be misinformed. According to research from America, more than half of all teenagers (54%) get their news online, from Instagram, Twitter and Facebook for example, with 50% accessing news from YouTube.
Practical steps you can take to help reduce your child’s anxiety
Listen to your child’s concerns, encourage them to ask questions and talk to them calmly and openly about serious topics like the pandemic. Don’t be afraid to admit that you don’t have all the answers and try to stick to a single, trusted source of information, especially when it comes to answering questions about COVID-19. There is trusted free health advice from the Australian Department of Health’s website, healthdirect.gov.au.
- Encourage children to limit their exposure to media reports from untrusted sources.
- Ask them about their thoughts and feelings. Between 22% and 38% of adolescents have thought about suicide at some point in their lives, and it’s a myth that asking young people about suicidal thoughts will put ideas into their heads.
- Encourage them to talk about their feelings, if not to you then to someone else they know and trust.
- Engage in activities together or practice mindfulness as a family.
Beyond Blue has a helpful coronavirus mental wellbeing support service that is regularly updated with advice, information and strategies to help people manage mental health and wellbeing at this time. They offer online chats, online forums and a free helpline on 1800 512 348.
Tips for young people to stay mentally healthy
The following tips for young people are from headspace, the National Youth Mental Health Foundation.
- Stay active. Exercise and physical activity can help mental and physical health.
- Get into life. Do things you love or find new things to enjoy. Nature, art, music and journaling can all help ease mental stress.
- Learn skills for tough times. Build strategies that can help you cope, from meditation to talking to friends.
- Create connections. Relationships with others can help you relax, feel connected and supported, and boost your energy and sense of wellbeing.
- Eat well. Healthy, nutritious food can give you more energy, help you sleep, improve concentration and help keep your headspace healthy.
- Get enough sleep. The right amount of sleep can improve your mood, help you manage your emotions and reduce the risk of mental health challenges in the future.
- Cut back on alcohol and other drugs. Drugs and alcohol can seriously harm your mental health, and the after-effects can leave you feeling worse than before. Find out more about how to cut back.
The health guides on our CBHS website contain information on mental health that you might find helpful, as well as useful information on how to alleviate and treat symptoms of anxiety, stress and depression.
Signs that someone may be struggling
Not everyone shows outwards signs of distress, but Lifeline offers the following possible signs to look out for:
- Restlessness and increased agitation
- Emotional outbursts
- Withdrawing from people
- Withdrawing from activities
- Describing feeling helpless, hopeless or worthless
- Not wanting to do things they usually enjoy
- Increased use of alcohol or other drugs
- Not replying to text messages, calls or emails, or being distant
- Talking about not being around any more
Where to go for more help
- For emergency help call 000
- To speak to someone urgently call Lifeline on 13 11 14
- For suicide support call Suicide Call Back Service on 1300 659 467
- For urgent help for young children call Kids Helpline on 1800 55 1800
Lifeline is a national charity that offers 24-hour crisis support and suicide prevention services for people experiencing emotional distress. For emergency help you can call Lifeline seven days a week, 24 hours a day. You can chat online between 7pm and midnight or text from 12pm to midnight AEST, and you can also contact Lifeline if you’re worried about someone and need advice on how to help them.
Visit lifeline.org.au or call 13 11 14
Kids Helpline offers free confidential webchat, phone and email counselling services for children from the ages of 5 to 25. It operates 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Children can chat about anything that’s worrying them, and they can choose the gender of the counsellor they chat to. They can also ask to speak to the same counsellor if they need to call back.
Visit kidshelpline.com.au or call 1800 55 1800
BRAVE-online is an online interactive cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) program for children and teenagers − with complementary programs for parents − that helps young people overcome anxiety. The website has resources for parents to help children as young as three who might be showing early signs of anxiety. Young people can complete the free self-help programs on their own or with their parents, and get guidance from online therapists if necessary.
The Suicide Call Back Service is a nationwide service that offers immediate 24/7 telephone and online counselling to anyone feeling suicidal. They also offer ongoing support with up to six telephone counselling sessions.
Visit suicidecallbackservice.org.au or call 1300 659 467
Headspace is a national resource for young people between the ages of 12 and 25. It offers online and phone counselling services to help young people with mental health, physical health (including sexual health) alcohol and other drugs and work and study support. Headspace also offers face-to-face support in headspace centres in 124 communities across Australia.
Young people can join a group chat led by a headspace professional, or chat online with a mental health clinician, from 9am to 1am, seven days a week. There’s no need to make an appointment but there could be a wait as this isn’t an emergency service. Children can also access free or heavily subsidised face-to-face counselling at headspace centres, which requires a referral from a GP.
Your GP or child and family health nurse is a good first contact if you’re worried about your child’s mental health − they can help you find an appropriate service or professional in your area. Many schools also have counsellors you or your child can talk to without charge. A GP can develop a mental health plan for people who need it, which means Medicare may subsidise up to 10 sessions with a mental health professional.
You can use the Australian Counseling Association’s find a counsellor service to search for a counsellor who specialises in working with young people. You don’t need a referral to see a counsellor, but you do need a referral to see a psychologist or psychiatrist.
Is mental health treatment covered under private health insurance?
Some CBHS Extras policies include benefits towards the cost of clinical psychology. Login to the CBHS Member Centre or mobile app to check what’s covered under your policy. You can also call our Member Care team on 1300 654 123 or email firstname.lastname@example.org and we’ll check for you.
Your Hospital policy may cover the cost of inpatient hospital accommodation and a portion of the medical fees for mental health treatment. Some levels of cover restrict hospital psychiatric services but there is a once-per-lifetime waiting period waiver if
you need to upgrade your cover to access higher inpatient psychiatric care benefits. You must have held continuous Hospital cover for two months to be eligible for the waiver. Speak to our Member Care team on 1300 654 123 or email email@example.com to find out more.
Our CBHS Better Living programs offer self-managed mental health support at home. Members need to hold an appropriate level of Hospital or packaged cover to access Better Living. Call our Wellness team on 1300 or email firstname.lastname@example.org to check your cover.
The Best Doctors Mental Health Navigator offers confidential support and treatment that you can access from home. A mental health nurse completes an initial assessment then makes a referral to a psychiatrist and/or clinical psychologist. The nurse guides you to treatment and offers support for up to six months. Members who hold CBHS Prestige (Gold) cover can access this service.
Lifeline has a fact sheet on self-harm that can help explain why young people self-harm and what you can do to help.
More information on the effect of COVID-19 on children from the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute.
The Black Dog Institute has some great suggestions on how to talk to children about COVID-19.
My Hero is You is a book written for children around the world who have been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Beyond Blue has a coronavirus mental health support service, offering help by phone, through online communities and by webchat.
All information contained in this article is intended for general information purposes only. The information provided should not be relied upon as medical advice and does not supersede or replace a consultation with a suitably qualified healthcare professional.
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