APS calls for urgent investment into youth mental health

Australian Psychological Society

For too long, Australia’s young people have struggled with their mental health.

These struggles have deepened in recent years, following a series of crises – from the COVID-19 pandemic to climate change. At the same time, increased living costs have made getting help more difficult.

Our young people need more widespread, and more effective, support.

That’s why the Australian Psychology Society (APS), in our 2024-25 pre-budget submission is urgently calling on the federal government to invest in youth mental health.

The APS proposes two initiatives aimed at both prevention and treatment. The first is the creation of an in-school evidence-based resilience building program, delivered by psychologists. The second is the addition of a youth safety net to Medicare, which would enable young people to access psychology services more affordably.

Why does youth mental health need more support?

The mental health of our youth is one of Australia’s biggest and most important challenges – as borne out by the statistics.

Suicide is the leading cause of death for those aged 15-24, according to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. Nearly 40% of 16–24-year-old people experience a mental health disorder, reports the Australian Bureau of Statistics.

“We are in the middle of a youth mental health crisis,” says Dr Catriona Davis-McCabe, President, APS.

“Psychologists in the past couple of years have seen a huge increase in children and young people presenting to treatment.”

During and after the COVID-19 pandemic, three-quarters of adolescents said their mental health had declined. Further, climate change is triggering significant anxiety in young people, particularly those in regional and remote areas.

Yet, 27% of Australians say finances are a barrier to accessing psychology services.

Recommendation 1: An in-school resilience building program

These statistics might sound overwhelming, but they are far from inevitable. In fact, the opposite is true. Early intervention can make all the difference.

“We know that a lot of mental ill-health starts before the age of 14,” says Dr Davis-McCabe.

“If we can support and treat a young person, and work with their family, they’re less likely to develop further or more complex mental health issues as they get older.”

For that reason, school is the best place to start. Furthermore, it is a familiar environment.

“Schools provide opportunities for all young people to access services,” says Dr Erica Frydenberg, Associate Professor, University of Melbourne and an educational, clinical and organisational psychologist with a special interest in youth mental health.

“These services are well accepted and there is a reduced likelihood of stigma.”

The proposed program would teach children – and their parents and carers – to cope with adversity, manage stress and enhance wellbeing, thereby building resilience, optimism and confidence.

The school program will:

  • deliver psychology-informed, community-focused knowledge building and skills development;

  • equip young people to cope with climate change and ongoing natural disasters; and

  • include thorough, ongoing evaluation, to determine its impact and identify opportunities for improvement and refinement.

To ensure its effectiveness, the program should be executed by school psychologists or psychologist-trained wellbeing officers.

“Psychologists are well-positioned to take a holistic approach,” says Dr Davis-McCabe.

“This might include identifying individuals in the school community who need support, drawing on awareness of local needs and vulnerabilities, and ensuring integrated mental health services.”

“[Educational and developmental psychologists specifically] are trained as educators and consultants to work in a preventative model… that brings educators and school leaders on a journey to enable system change.”

Given the current ratio of students to psychologists in schools is 1:1500, the APS proposes that the government invest to bring the ratio closer to 1:500.

“If we had one psychologist for every 500 students, we would be better placed to provide early intervention services and support more young people presenting with mental health issues at school.”

Recommendation 2: A Medicare youth mental health safety net

While an in-school resilience building program would go a long way to helping our youth, it wouldn’t happen overnight.

In the meantime, it is imperative that young people can access mental health services immediately and without financial stress.

The APS proposes the addition of a youth mental health safety net to Medicare as soon as possible. This would bring the Medicare Safety Net threshold to $0 for any person aged 14-25 accessing Medicare psychology services.

In addition, young people with severe and complex mental health disorders should receive up to 20 (rather than the current 10) rebateable sessions with a psychologist.

“Dramatically decreasing the cost of care would ensure that all young people can get the services they need, regardless of their financial situation,” says Dr Davis-McCabe.

Advice for psychologists working with young people

“Prevention is better than cure,” says Dr Frydenberg, whose lifelong research has focused on the development of universal coping skills.

“Rather than just providing ambulances at the bottom of the cliff, we need to prevent people from falling off.

“Coping skills training is not just about helping to fix what is wrong, but what can be done better or differently.”

Key to this is establishing a relationship based on trust, so the psychologist and young person can work together.

“Acknowledging stress and despair is the first step,” says Dr Frydenberg.

“But, essentially, to go beyond stress and despair to ‘treatment’ is an educative practice, where you take people on a journey of skill building.”

Initially, the young person must see the primary purpose of skill building – to cope with their main concern. Later, the skills developed can be adapted to other aspects of living.

“‘Treatment’ becomes a source of life skills that can be used in any circumstances – work, study, relationships or concerns about what is happening in the world,” says Dr Frydenberg.

Short-term investment for a long-term gain

The APS recommended initiatives would have long-term gains for all young Australians, making the investment socially and economically beneficial.

“If we don’t invest now, we’re going to see further economic impact down the line,” says Dr Davis-McCabe.

“If young people aren’t treated and can’t access appropriate services, they’re going to end up with more difficulties in adulthood, and not be as productive in society as they might want to be.

“We want to be able to help them to move forward to lead successful and fulfilling lives, and psychologists are best placed to do this.”

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