A cry for help
If you type ‘Emo teens’ into Google, more than two million internet sites appear. The Emo subculture – one of angst-ridden teens with a preference for black clothing and dark thoughts – seems to have been accepted by society as simply part of a distressed youth.
Yet according to Professo McGorry, an acceptance of young people’s turbulence is leading society into dangerous territory when it comes to addressing the mental health of our emerging adults.
“There is just too much acceptance these days that young people will be upset, turbulent, distressed and difficult – and this can blind us to what’s lying behind their behaviour, which is often unrecognised mental disorders,” he says.
“Navigating your way through teenagehood and early adulthood isn’t just about avoiding tough times; these tough times can sometimes lead to severe disorders such as psychosis or an eating disorder that requires a professional health response.”
One third of Australians experience a period of mental ill health by the time they reach 25, and most major mental health problems are also likely to assert themselves before someone reaches this age.
Professor McGorry says despite this prevalence, young people in Australia have very poor access to the kind of health services and supports they need.
“When it comes to mental health services in Australia, the system is weakest for those in the time of life who need it most,” he says.
Twenty-two-year-old Vittoria Tonin was one of those people who needed help, having been hospitalised with depression at the age of 17 after years of experiencing symptoms she did not recognise.
“I suppose I just didn’t realise I was depressed at the time, and it wasn’t until I reached rock-bottom that I was forced to deal with it. All I knew was that I was waking up feeling miserable every day,” she says.
“I knew it was unhealthy to feel like that, but we really didn’t talk about it at school so I just said nothing and focused on my study and hockey. I thought if I said anything, people would think I was weak. On one occasion, when I did tell a doctor I was having suicidal thoughts, I was asked if I wanted a late note for school.”
Stories of young people not knowing where to go for help, or getting inappropriate mental health assistance, are just too common according to Professor McGorry, who says such failures reflect a nationwide neglect of youth mental health.
“A British psychiatrist once referred to such neglect as a form of self-harm undertaken by society, and it really is,” he says.
“Not doing everything we can to prevent our young people from becoming vulnerable to mental ill health is not only damaging individuals, but also damaging our society as people aren’t achieving what they are capable of.
“They are disabled as a result of treated or untreated health problems and this means they can’t contribute properly to their own lives or to the broader social fabric.”
Ms Tonin says it wasn’t until her symptoms were treated seriously that she was able to turn her life around. With persistence, she was able to track down the help she needed and is now a vibrant, positive and active member of society working in the field of youth mental health. Ms Tonin talks openly about her experiences with depression and says talking about mental health issues will help erode the lingering stigma attached to the illness.
“If only mental ill health was treated by society like a sprained ankle. Everyone from your parents to the school nurse knows what to do with that kind of injury; but with depression, no-one seems to know what to do or how to react to you,” she says.
Professor McGorry says society has come a long way in talking openly about depression, but that it still has a long way to go in terms of setting up an adequate system of support for youth mental health.
“Adequate services will come with adequate funding which could help us set up things like an online resource for young people seeking advice on their mental health, and help us create more youth-friendly primary care centres,” he says.
“Youth mental health is more serious than cancer and heart disease in terms of its burden on society as it affects those in the prime of their life. Yet despite this, cancer and heart disease get a much larger share of funding and we need to address this imbalance.
“If we do nothing about these inadequacies, we will continue in a cycle of just being one lost generation after another,” Professor McGorry says.
Kids Help Line (a 24-hour telephone and online counselling for five to 25-year-olds in Australia)
1800 55 1800
Lifeline Australia (24-hour confidential telephone counselling to anyone within Australia
13 11 14