Lighting the way forward for young Australians

Australia is struggling under the tightening grip of a mental health crisis. And it is our young Australians, our children and our grandchildren, who are most at risk.

Professor James Scott leads the Child and Youth Mental Health Group at QIMR Berghofer. With almost 30 years of clinical psychiatry experience, Professor Scott knows the situation on the frontline is a true emergency.

“Mental illnesses are the most common health problem for adolescents and young adults living in Australia,” he said.

The Young Minds Matter survey of Australian children and adolescents uncovered that one in seven young people aged 4-17 years (13.9%) experienced a mental disorder. This is equivalent to over half a million young Australians.

While anxiety and depression may not sound ‘severe’, the grave concern is that if not detected and managed early, they can quickly lead to more serious health problems such as substance use problems, eating disorders, self-harm, and even suicide. Tragically, suicide was the leading cause of death among Australians aged 15-49 years in 2019.

Almost half of all Australian adults will face mental health issues during their lives, and the symptoms often appear in youth.

Research shows that early intervention, targeted at the time of the onset of the mental health issues, can lead to better health outcomes in adulthood.

This is an area of focus for QIMR Berghofer’s passionate and committed researchers from the Child and Youth Mental Health Group.

A small but growing number of studies have shown that cultivating a stronger sense of purpose can help promote psychological wellbeing and provide a buffer against mental ill-health. Professor Scott has taken this on as a mission to assist struggling young people to regain a sense of purpose, to help reduce symptoms of stress, anxiety, and depression, so that these problems don’t persist into adulthood or develop into more severe mental health issues.

Through working with young people who have experienced mental illness, QIMR Berghofer is developing new ways to help tackle mental health issues before it is too late.

Dr Emily Hielscher, a Postdoctoral Research Scientist, has taken a leading role in establishing sense of purpose research at QIMR Berghofer. She has established the Sense of Purpose ‘Youth Advisory Group’ (YAG) which consults with young Australians aged 15-24 years with lived experience of anxiety and/or depression. Group members share their experiences and insights with researchers who use this information to find new opportunities for intervention.

“Young people should be at the heart of new solutions and approaches in this field,” Dr Hielscher said.

Avreet is 22-years-old and is a member of YAG. She has experienced anxiety and depression and is now interested in helping other young people feel heard and supported with their mental health.

“I’ve always seen people around me struggle, all through high-school, even in my first two years of university, and I was struggling as well. There were never enough resources, there was never enough understanding from the community,” Avreet said.

“Mental health has always been taboo in my friendship group. We never spoke about how we were struggling, but you could see someone’s behaviour changing… and I was changing, too.”

Another YAG member, Amber, who is 15-years-old, is also determined to see change. “I want to help other people to not go through what I did in regard to mental health. I want people to understand that youth mental health concerns are valid, and not an attention ploy. It is people asking for help.”

Australia’s healthcare system is struggling to keep up with growing demand for help.

Professor Scott said, “In Australia, there is a crisis arising from workforce shortage. Many young people, and their families, are distressed and anxious. They may go to a GP for help, or even present to an Emergency Department, but there is a long wait time to access a psychologist or psychiatrist. This creates big problems – the system is under strain.”

Professor Scott and his dedicated team are now ready to use the Sense of Purpose study to design and develop an evidence-based online program to support young Australians.

“Addressing mental health problems early with simple but effective psychological support might avoid the need for specialist, more intensive and expensive interventions provided by a psychologist or psychiatrist,” Professor Scott said.

This is one of the opportunities being followed up at QIMR Berghofer in creating a new early intervention program for youth mental health. These programs can be rolled out across Australia, through cities and regions wherever help is needed. With long wait times to access mental health professionals, more scalable intervention programs like these are desperately needed.

Initial research was made possible by the generosity of the Wellcome Trust.

Statistics Sources:

  • Australian Government Department of Health – Mental Health & Suicide in Australia.
  • Australian Institute of Health and Wellness (AIWH) Suicide Reports
  • Young Minds Matter Mental Health Survey 2013-14
  • Kessler RC, Berglund P, Demler O, Jin R, Merikangas KR, Walters EE, Lifetime prevalence and age-of-onset distributions of DSM-IV disorders in the National Comorbidity Survey Replication, Arch Gen Psychiatry, 2005.
  • Kessler RC, Amminger GP, Aguilar-Gaxiola S, Alonso J, Lee S, Ustün TB, Age of onset of mental disorders: a review of recent literature. Curr Opin Psychiatry. 2007.
  • Solmi, M., Radua, J., Olivola, M, Age at onset of mental disorders worldwide: large-scale metaanalysis of 192 epidemiological studies, Mol Psychiatry, 2021


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