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26 October 2020
Salvos supporting youth as mental health issues rise
Words Simone Worthing
October is National Mental Health Month in Australia. This week we continue our series of articles looking at different aspects of mental health and the help that is out there, for everyone. Our coverage features an interview with Angie Jarman, clinical psychologist and case consultant with The Salvation Army’s youth services across Victoria.
The COVID-19 pandemic has, and is, taking a mental and emotional toll on many people, but it has become an especially tough time for vulnerable youth. On top of fears around education and employment, many of these young people are also battling to find stable housing, build life skills and develop a strong and supportive community around them.
“Many of the youth in our services, including two youth refuges in Melbourne, have been let down, often by family and caregivers, as well as other systems designed to support them,” says Angie.
“Our services have the beautiful opportunity to come in at this point to help those youth find different ways of being, different options on the journey to becoming fully functional adults and alternate ways of finding jobs and housing.
“This is a time of change and we want to work with them to help break the cycle of homelessness.”
A GROWING CONCERN
During the pandemic, mental health organisations and services such as the Salvos have seen an increase in the volume of calls they receive from young people, and experts have warned of increases in anxiety, distress, self-harm and indicators of suicide-vulnerability and behaviour.
Patrick McGorry, Executive Director of Orygen Youth Health Research Centre and Professor of Youth Mental Health at the University of Melbourne, said recently that authorities are predicting a 15-25 per cent increased risk of suicide and are expecting the need for mental health services for young people to increase by almost a third (abc.net.au).
“Our vulnerable young people are certainly feeling the pressure,” says Angie. “Some of this comes from often not having had the best care and start in life for a whole range of reasons, which has led to unhelpful coping strategies and mental health issues. The young people are often not used to connection as they are estranged from their families and many have been abused. Some may be using substances such as drugs and or alcohol and so can’t sustain education or employment. Many have lived on the streets and dropped out of school.
“The ‘usual’ structures of a stable upbringing, including employment, school, family, health and sport, just aren’t there for many young people. These factors are some of the drivers behind many challenging behaviours and mental health struggles they face.”
Angie explained that there is still a lot of stigma around homelessness, even youth homelessness, and, while many show compassion to the young people, others are embarrassed by them, pity them, or blame them for their circumstances.
“We try to link the young people in with services and community groups where they can connect and feel valued, cared for, heard and respected,” says Angie.
Even though many young people are finding the impacts of the pandemic to be adding complexity and desperation to their mental health struggles, some are finding themselves more equipped to work through some of the challenges than they first thought.
One of the biggest difficulties facing young people throughout lockdowns and restrictions has been disconnection from family and social structures.
“In our vulnerable young cohort, who sadly are already disconnected from family and support, many are finding that they have already developed resilience in that space,” says Angie. “Social isolation is not new to them and their resilience is helping to protect them.”
Many of the young people accessing the Salvos services, particularly the youth refuges, have also adapted well to online groups, courses, appointments and support.
“This is a digital generation with everything at their fingertips so it hasn’t come as that much of a shock and adjustment for many,” says Angie.
“It’s also been easier for them to get additional government support, through the provision of bulk-billing psychologists, health resources, hotel accommodation and housing support, and financial subsidies. We are working with our young people to help them save some money to get out of debt and work towards private rental.”
Despite the huge advantages of being digitally savvy and able to access a range of resources and interactions online, Angie does not support the virtual-living lifestyle.
“Our society is emotionally disconnected, which is leading to a lack of community and an overwhelming tide of loneliness,” she says. “This applies to us all, not just young people. We’re not good at connecting face-to-face and the places where we can connect are disappearing.
“The pandemic has shown that the need for people to connect in person has grown, but we are living much more virtually. There is less eye contact, physical proximity and hugs. The chemical changes in our bodies those things create are less, impacting our health as well.
“As a society we don’t know our neighbours, we are more wary of each other, we aren’t turning to church for social connections and we just don’t have the time to put into community with all our work and family responsibilities.”
Angie believes that, for most people, a ratio of around 70 per cent face-to-face relationships and 30 per cent online would be optimal for good mental health.
“For young people, though, this ratio is often the opposite, and can lead to so much isolation and loneliness,” she says.
What the young people say
“Being in a youth refuge is good because there is a community and you get to practise a lot of skills that you wouldn’t if you were alone in COVID-19, such as cooking and baking. You meet other people in the refuge and get to spend time with staff doing fun activities. If you weren’t in the refuge you would be by yourself.”
“Everything is good and not good at the same time. It’s good when you have a home that is safe because you can stay healthy, but it’s very bad [here] because you can’t study or go to see anybody and we can’t go anywhere. We have to stay in here and within a 5km radius, and we are very tired and lonely. I just want to stay home and cry because I don’t see anybody; it’s hard. I have plans to start studying, to start driving lessons and to take English classes. The starting dates for my courses keep changing and it is hard to do all of my classes online because I don’t always have enough data on my phone.”
“It’s good to be in a refuge because it’s a stable place to stay, but there is a lot of stress because we are not able to get out as much as we used to. We are trying to adjust to a lot of discipline and rules. It is a change from having nobody tell you what to do, to having rules that apply to your whole life. Not everybody has support at home or someone to talk to. I’m a very outgoing person and would always make friends with other people and know what everyone is doing, but now it’s harder to connect and it isn’t the same online.”
“It’s a hard time, but it’s important to be there for each other and help each other in the best way that you possibly can, and then we will get through it. We need to work as a team. I have positive people around me and am good at doing things that I enjoy and that stimulate my mind. It’s really good to have things to do with your hands, like drawing and painting, because then you don’t have to spend so much time on technology.”
HOW TO HELP VULNERABLE TEENAGERS
Listen to their stories without judgment. They want to be heard. Sharing their story helps them heal.
Ask open-ended questions and don’t give solutions to problems unless asked.
Learn how early attachment, care giving, good structures and opportunities can positively impact young people, and vice versa.
Don’t tell them what to do and what to feel.
Find out what is happening for them.
Ask permission – do they need or want your help?
Encourage them to reach out to professionals as needed.