Young people from rural and regional areas recognise mental health as the most important issue affecting them. Yet serious shortages of mental health services continue to strangle these communities.
The Victorian Royal Commission into Mental Health is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to create an effective mental healthcare system long-term.
Youth Affairs Council Victoria (YACVic) believes that young people are the key to achieving this, especially given that 75 per cent of all lifetime mental health disorders emerge by age 24.
The Royal Commission must focus on how to effectively support young people, and it must listen and include the experiences and perspectives of young people.
Young people experiencing mental illness should be recognised as experts in their own lives. They are uniquely positioned to understand how to access various services whether it be through school, youth services or medical services.
YACVic's submission to the Royal Commission into Mental Health will heavily focus on the experiences facing young people from rural and regional communities.
Rural communities experience massive inequalities of service access, and there are also significant shortages in regional centres.
In 70 per cent of Victoria's most disadvantaged rural postcodes, you would have to travel more than 50km to see the nearest psychologist.
Many of these communities also do not have headspace centres.
Being away from local support networks makes seeking help an isolating experience for many rural and regional young people.
It's hard enough living with a mental health condition, but it's even worse when you've spent significant money and time travelling to Melbourne or a regional centre.
Even when a local health service does exist, it may not be appropriate for every young person.
"Having a small, close-knit society is both an enjoyable yet often problematic part of growing up rurally," says Tiana Sixsmith, one of YACVic's young facilitators holding consultations in communities.
"While a sense of community is strong, the ability to rise past the stigma that surrounds mental health and mental health problems and seek assistance is often difficult due to that closeness.
"Everybody knows everybody, and sometimes that fear of judgement becomes too much."
This all puts extra responsibility onto schools in supporting young people's mental health, which often have limited access to qualified well-being staff and mental health practitioners. But what happens if a student has a crisis after school hours?
Young Victorians deserve proper, co-ordinated support. Too often, our politicians believe that securing funding for a service such as headspace in a community is enough to address youth mental health issues.
While recent announcements to invest hundreds of millions of dollars into headspace are welcome, it isn't enough to ensure young people can get the care they need, when they need it.
We need systemic solutions which include and empower the community.
YACVic's When Life Sucks report engaged more than 150 young people on their original and innovative ideas for tackling issues around mental health in the Loddon Campaspe region.
More than 20 potential initiatives were generated, including a community campaign, before and after-hours counselling, a youth services directory hub and more, some which are now being implemented back in communities.
"Recently the young people in my community back home [in Swan Hill] have been putting together videos to create conversations surrounding mental health," Tiana said. "They have also started including headspace at as many youth events as possible so more people are aware that help is always available, and that nobody should feel ashamed of seeking support."
Young people deserve real input about what happens in their life and in their communities.
That's why over the coming months, YACVic is running extensive consultations across the Southern Mallee and Great South Coast regions with young people and youth workers (be sure to check YACVic's website for details).
When their voices are listened to and heard, young people are empowered to take control of their own lives and support their community.
Young people's ideas can build stronger, more resilient and healthier rural and regional communities long-term.
A Royal Commission in to Mental Health that helps young Victorians will help everyone have a brighter, healthier future.
Tiana says: "Young people are the next generation of leaders and this is their future, the future of mental health and its services."
Paul Turner is caretaker chief executive of Youth Affairs Council Victoria
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