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  • Writer's picture2022 Global Voices Fellow

Bridging the Gap: Delivering Mental Health First-Aid through Peer Support

Daniel Gao, University of Melbourne Faculty of Business and Economics



Executive Summary:

In the midst of the global mental health crisis, a staggering diversity of solutions have been proposed and trialled by organisations and governing bodies. Despite the steady facilitation of services and interventions alongside increased federal funding, statistics from the national census and NGO surveys have suggested that mental illness rates and distress levels amongst children, teenagers, and young adults have increased (Treasury, 2022). Specifically, 39.6% of Australians aged 16-24 reported experiencing a 12-month mental disorder (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2021), and three-quarters of voters aged 16-24 believe young people cannot access the specialist care they need (Orygen, 2022). This highlights the critical need for strategies that effectively bridge Australian services with the young populations they aim to support. This policy paper pushes for peer support and mental health first-aid education to become a central asset in overcoming this crisis, serving as a means of early intervention and acting as first responders who can assist in alleviating a degree of emotional trauma and referring those in need to the professional services Australia has to offer. It recommends allocating funding to form a new federal body within the Department of Health and Aged Care, tasked with developing a curriculum to train professionals in peer support and mental health first-aid education. Additionally, it proposes introducing a ‘Mental Health Literacy and Education’ subsection within Australia’s Long Term National Health Plan (ALTNHP) within 5 years to outline a commitment to peer support and mental health first-aid education for all schools in Australia, delivered in partnership with NGOs and charities. The estimated cost is $1.2 million annually for effective implementation in all Australian schools.



Problem Identification

Despite growth in federal funding allocated to the mental health sector, a concerning trend persists in youth mental health statistics, with “39.6% [of Australians] aged 16-24 [reporting] a 12-month mental disorder” (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2021)  and “three-quarters of voters aged 16-24 believe young people… cannot access the specialist care they need” (Orygen, 2022). Logically, the cause for concern is not the total funding allocated, but the efficacy of the services and resources these funds are designed to provide. 


What must first be foregrounded is the immediacy and urgency of this mental health crisis amongst the Australian youth. With grant offerings reflecting the mandate and key areas specified within both the federal budget and plans from respective departments within the government, changes in these documents can cause significant flow on effects to the impact of organisations and actors (Hartanti et al., 2022). Australia’s Long Term National Health Plan is one such document, whose directives shape the scope of professional services and the mental health safety net in the country more broadly  (Mental Health Commission, 2017). Within ‘Pillar Three: Mental Health and Preventative Health’, the department delegates the responsibility of addressing youth mental health issues to a secondary ‘National Children’s Mental Health and Wellbeing Strategy’ (NCMHWS) despite the next paragraph explicitly recognising “research into the early detection, diagnosis and treatment of eating disorders'' as a priority (Department of Health, 2019). 


The otherwise lack of explicit mention for youth mental health in a plan that outlines the most pressing concerns for Australian health warrants concerns for the future solutions protecting young Australians and risks the struggles of this demographic being overlooked in policymaking and grants.  In 2013, 14.4% of young people reported experiencing a mental disorder and by 2022, 26% of young people aged 15-24 reported experiencing chronic anxiety disorders alone (Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, 2022). As a result, the four year gap between the ALTNHP’s publishing and the release of the NCMHWS in late 2023, diverting attention away from youth mental health solutions becomes a possibility. To ensure a framework is in place to protect the wellbeing of the next generation of Australians, a comprehensive and urgent response is necessary, which would most effectively stem from change within ALTNHP.


Just as early intervention is recognised as a critical element for addressing the eating disorder crisis, its importance as a mechanism of Australia’s mental health safety net should similarly be reflected in policy-making. For young Australians, a successful response hinges on the actions outlined in the new NCMHWS, and while its existence as a separate document to ALTNHP implies more extensive considerations and solutions, an evaluation of its ‘Action’ sections reveal more concerns (National Mental Health Commission, 2023).  The recognition of ‘Early Intervention’ as a critical concern was supplemented by an acknowledgement that “there are barriers such as lack of investment and research into mental health assessment tools… for this population” and a parent’s commentary that “early intervention isn’t made possible around mental health because it’s so focused on disability” (National Mental Health Commission, 2023). However, the only attached solution to this was the Mental Health in Primary Schools Pilot (MHiPS) program, which was an existing initiative. An effective early intervention strategy should involve literacy and education, and action steps for delivering both to children, teenagers and young adults are absent in the document (Sznitman et al., 2011). The latter sections of this policy paper propose mental health first-aid and peer support as unique solutions which seek to address this shortcoming.

Context

Policy Recommendations

Limitations/Barriers

Conclusion



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The views and opinions expressed by Global Voices Fellows do not necessarily reflect those of the organisation or its staff.

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