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It’s OK not to be OK sometimes: dealing with young people’s mental health

By Sam Di Sano on 10 September 2018NSWstaffroomWellbeing

Wellbeing is a tightrope

Wellbeing is a fine line for all of us but in the world of professional sport, where the clock is constantly counting down on one’s career, it could be argued that the stakes are even higher. I was recently reminded of the suicide of retired Wallaby, Daniel Vickerman in February 2017.

Vickerman suffered in silence. The day he took his own life he was scheduled to speak at a function about post-career life, tragically, the very issue that it is suggested drove him to the depths of anxiety and depression.

The transition to a real life

The concern for schools and school-age children is that if their sporting heroes cannot speak openly about their mental health issues, what hope do they have? I should stress though that at no time am I suggesting Vickerman is to blame for not speaking out or responsible for the impact he may have had on others.

Friends said that Vickerman had confided in them about how difficult his transition was post-rugby, especially after 10 or more years at the top. Whether it be professional sport, work or school, we all need to as a society, do everything possible to help young people with this “transition” to real life. When it comes to the HSC or its equivalent leaving certificate,16 year olds around the country sacrifice the better part of the next two years of their life sitting for what is with little doubt, the most stressful set of assessments and examinations imaginable.

The painful irony in Dan Vickerman's unnecessary death was that he had seemingly made the transition from elite athlete to regular human, with successful tertiary study, a fruitful post sport career and loving family.

We all share in the responsibility to protect our wellbeing

Sporting associations, corporates, businesses, all educational institutions have a responsibility to develop and maintain wellbeing programs for their folk so that people no longer feel they have to suffer in silence. Wellbeing programs have to have genuine structures of support in place which clearly demonstrate and document not only where to look for help but what help is available. It is important too that people know what questions to ask.

The R U OK? program is a wonderful initiative for that specific reason. When first established in 2009 the priority was simply to start the conversation. That conversation has now moved into a new space where we now need to know what questions to ask and what support to give. The resources that R U OK? has developed in that space are terrific and worth accessing for any adult who is engaged with young people.

The message for educators?

For schools, mental health is no longer the ‘elephant in the room’. It now needs to be spoken about openly. We need society to back off and give young people space to speak up and look for help. A few things need to drastically change:

  1. We need to continue to fight the stigma of mental health and teach young people to speak up by modelling this as adults.
  2. We also need to change the perception that it is brave to internalise feelings or weak to speak out about them.
  3. We need to educate our young people on the benefit of seeking out help - whether it be through their peers, teachers, parents, counsellors or mental health services.

Given that the biggest killer of young people aged 15 - 44 is suicide and that self-harm can often act as a “gateway” to suicide, the fact that one in ten 14-15 year olds have self-harmed in the previous 12 months, and 5% have attempted suicide is a national crisis which needs urgent attention. This all makes a compelling case for universal mental health programs, much like sex education, as a priority for education in this country.

The number of young adults living with depression, anxiety or panic attacks has reached 1.7 million, according to data from the Medibank Better Health Index. Anxiety and panic attacks have also almost doubled during the past nine years, according to the data.

Treatment alone is not enough to deal with mental health issues among young people. Stigma often prevents students seeking professional help too, whereas preventative education would capture all. Despite the calls to de-clutter the curriculum, schools are the ideal place to start. New York schools commenced their mandatory program of mental health education in lower secondary this year. The Black Dog Institute analysis of research studies from across the world shows school-based prevention programs reduce the impact of depression and anxiety and the best type of these are ones where young people with their own lived experience of mental health issues tell their story to school audiences.

The importance of peer to peer modelling of a lived experience

"It's important to let (young people) speak to (others) who have been to hell and back. The confronting, personal stories about what it's like to battle mental illness … Those stories need to be told, they need to be heard.”

Says ABC commentator Craig Hamilton who revealed his own mental health issues in his memoirs, Broken Open (2004).

If you or anyone you know needs help:

An unedited version of this article appears on my LinkedIn page.

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