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This Is The First Time I've Been Worried Enough To Write To The PM

More than eight people are killing themselves every day.

13/12/2016 10:51 AM AEDT | Updated 13/12/2016 12:42 PM AEDT

Dear Prime Minister,

You probably don't remember me, I was three years behind you at school, but I think you may remember my brother John who was in your year. He was the mining lawyer killed in an airplane crash in the Congo in 2010 with other Sundance Resources executives. I did meet you a few times at Sydney University when I was at St Paul's College in 1977 but I don't expect you to remember that.

Unlike you and my brother, I did not study law. I elected to become a psychologist and have specialised in young people. I've never written to a Prime Minister before, but am so worried about the number of young people I am seeing in my practice with anxiety, depression and substance abuse and I feel that, among the million things you have to do and are being told, this information may not be getting through to you.

I expect that you do know that about 4 million Australians are significantly affected by mental health and that mental illness damages the national economy more than any other major non-communicable disease -- double the impact of all cancers. The overall cost of supporting people with a mental illness in Australia is at least $28.6 billion.

I am also fairly certain that you would have received a briefing on the latest suicide rates which rose by 5 percent last year. For the first time, the number of people ending their lives went over 3000 people, with a conservative estimate of 3,027 people dying from what is typically a preventable death. That is 8.3 people killing themselves every day.

Despite saturation levels of national awareness around depression, only 16 percent of people with clinical depression in Australia receive even minimally adequate evidence-based care and depression is one of the most significant risk factors for suicide.

But I want to talk to you specifically about young people.

In his 1999 Beveridge lecture, commemorating the founder of the welfare state, UK Prime Minister Tony Blair said that young people were "20 percent of the population, but 100 percent of our future". As a child and adolescent psychologist, my colleagues and I are more worried about our young people than ever before. Allow me to explain why.

The latest ABS statistics tell us that the youth suicide rate for our boys is at its highest level in 10 years and at seriously catastrophic levels for our indigenous, LGBTQ, incarcerated and homeless young people. Every 18 hours in 2015, one young Australian male aged 15-29 died by suicide -- a total of 488 lives lost that year. The number of teenage girls who ended their lives in 2015 was precisely double the rate in 2005 and their rates of self harm have doubled over the past decade.

For the first time, the number of people ending their lives went over 3000 people, with a conservative estimate of 3,027 people dying from what is typically a preventable death.

I'm sure you know that 75 percent of all the psychological problems in adults start under the age of 25, so this is a hugely concerning trend. One in four young Australians currently has a mental health condition. This figure includes young people with a substance use disorder. This is equivalent to 750,000 young people today. Suicide remains the biggest killer of young Australians and accounts for the deaths of more young people than car accidents. So, in the supposedly lucky country, the mental health of our young people as the year draws to an end is worse than it was for their parents at the same age.

But what really worries me are two reports released this month, which you may not have seen but send shivers up my spine as they outline the prospect of an even bleaker future.

The first was a report by Mission Australia which surveyed more than 21,000 young people and asked them to rank how concerned they had been about a number of issues in the past year. Nationally, the top three issues of concern were coping with stress, school or study problems and body image, with around four in 10 respondents indicating that they were either extremely concerned or very concerned about coping with stress and school or study problems, and three in 10 highly concerned about body image. The proportion of females concerned about each of these issues was much higher than the proportion of males.

Each year since the survey began, the proportion of young people indicating that they don't have the skills, knowledge or strategies to do deal with stress has increased. Surely, this is a clarion call to parents and schools to do more in not just preparing young people for the economy but for life. There is a clear need for social and emotional competencies such as anger management, conflict resolution and problem solving to become part of the curriculum before it is too late.

The second report came from the Australian Psychological Society -- the APS Compass for Life Wellbeing Survey. It also painted a pretty grim picture of young people and their resilience, that capacity to face, overcome, be transformed and strengthened by adversity, something (by all reports) you have shown throughout your life.

The APS report found that young Australians had significantly lower scores on engagement, positive emotion and overall wellbeing. They scored significantly higher on loneliness than people aged 35 and over. One in six of them said they were dissatisfied with their lives and future outlook, while one in three report acquiring valuable things makes them happy and only 45 percent had a strong sense of belonging to their community. This sense of belonging is key in resilience research and should be hugely worrying to all workers with young people in health, education and welfare.

Each year since the survey began, the proportion of young people indicating that they don't have the skills, knowledge or strategies to do deal with stress has increased. Surely, this is a clarion call to parents and schools to do more in not just preparing young people for the economy but for life.

The data also suggests that young Australians are dropping the ball when it comes to the fundamental building blocks of wellbeing -- namely sleep, exercise and diet. Last month a paper in the well respected Journal of Physical Activity and Health reported that Australian children are among the least active in the world ranking 21 out of 38 countries, with fewer than one in five children aged 5-17 meeting the recommended 60 minutes of physical activity each day. Fewer than one in four grade six students have mastered physical milestones such as catching, throwing, sprinting, jumping and side galloping.

As far as sleep was concerned, our young people seem in the grip of a mass sleep deprivation pandemic, with only one in three teenagers reporting regularly getting a good night of sleep. 9 percent of teenagers reported that they get a good night of sleep once a week or less.

When it comes to diet, only 19 percent of teenagers ate sufficient fruit and vegetables and one in five (19 percent) of adolescents consumed soft drinks almost every day or more.

I could go on, but your time is precious. Please weigh these things up when you and your Health Minister draft the budget in 2017. We cannot afford to keep going this way. Do not allow awareness about mental illness to be substituted for meaningful political action on the issue. In primary care, there is an annual cap of 10 sessions of psychological care under MBS rules (reduced in 2011 from the original 18 sessions).

I have only one question: Why are we, as a nation, rationing mental health care to young people who are, as Tony Blair said, 100 percent of the future? If you did that for heart disease, cancer or diabetes there would be an outcry.

I wish you and Lucy a merry Christmas and a happy new year.

_______________________

If you need help in a crisis, call Lifeline on 13 11 14. For further information about depression contact beyondBlue on 1300224636 or talk to your GP, local health professional or someone you trust.

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