Back to All News

Addressing the youth mental health crisis

Speeches in Parliament
Penny Wright 4 Mar 2015

I rise to speak to the Enhancing Online Safety for Children Bill 2014. In my roles as the Australian Greens spokesperson on mental health and on schools, I am acutely aware of the challenges facing young people, their parents and teachers when it comes to online safety. I am particularly aware of the mental health implications for young people who are trying to navigate the online world but who often find themselves in very problematic situations, with online bullying and harassment a reality for too many.

In Australia, we have a youth mental health crisis on our hands, with hundreds of young Australians losing hope and indeed even ending their own lives before their lives have really begun. Suicides have a ripple effect across homes, schools and whole communities. Particularly in country areas, the tragedy of a suicide reaches beyond those immediately affected to the broader community. Often those communities are small and tight-knit, and many people will be aware of what has occurred and have connections with the person who has taken their own life. This can then have serious ongoing implications for the mental health of many.

The statistics are very concerning. Our young people are now more likely to die by suicide than in a car accident. The 2014 Children's rights report by the National Children's Commissioner, Megan Mitchell, examines suicide and self-harm among young people. It is extremely concerning in parts, as it details the real extent of this issue and the tragic loss of life which results. The report also gives us the clear sense that the issues surrounding youth mental health and wellbeing are complex and not easily fixed-indeed, not easily understood, which is why a great deal more research and better data sets are needed in this whole area.

We know that young people are under a great deal of pressure these days. Growing up has probably always been tough, but these days we know that technology can make it even tougher. There is no doubt that the online world can be a difficult one for young people to navigate. Certainly, as the parent of three young adults, I have seen the journeys that my children have taken and those of their friends in terms of the many benefits of being switched on 24/7 to social media but also the downsides as well. Of course, the internet provides the possibility of wondrous and amazing sources of information, great convenience in all sorts of interactions and exceedingly good relationships. But, of course, it can also be a portal to traumatising images and brutal behaviour. I cannot help but think that we are doing a big experiment on our young people these days.

I still remember going into my daughter's bedroom about 11 o'clock one night when I heard her sobbing-she was about 15. I found that she had been contacted by phone by a friend who was having a difficult time. She had been woken up and was upset about it. It just increased my awareness that once upon a time you had one telephone attached to the wall and you had to take your turn in speaking on it. If you were a teenager and you wanted to speak on it for too long your parents would get annoyed and be impatient with you. There was a natural limit on how much you could be in contact with the outside world when you were at home. But, obviously, it seems these days that young people can be in contact with the pressures, as well as the joys, of the outside world at any time of the night or day.

A 2014 study from the Social Policy Research Centre at the University of New South Wales estimated that 20 per cent of young Australians aged between eight and 17 have been victims of cyberbullying during one year, with 463,000 children estimated to have been affected. We know that increasing numbers of children and young people have access to the internet, particularly now on smartphones, and that in 2011 the Australian Communication and Media Authority identified social media as the primary form of digital communication between children over 13 years of age. If we take those statistics into account and then consider the sobering statistics we face in relation to the general mental health of young people in Australia, we realise what a complex picture we have to consider.

Last year, Mission Australia and the Black Dog Institute released a report which found that one in five young Australians are likely to be experiencing some form of mental ill health or mental illness. We know that half of all lifetime mental health disorders emerge by the age of 14, and three-quarters by the age of 24. So, clearly, adolescence is a crucial time in a person's life when it comes to their wellbeing and their mental health across their lifetime.

While the statistics paint a worrying picture, it is also important, of course, to acknowledge how many wonderful, dedicated people are working throughout Australia to improve the situation for young people in this country and the creative, innovative solutions they are generating, including a preponderance of solutions that actually use online programs to assist young people. This is a vehicle that, of course, many young people are very comfortable with and it would sometimes be their preference.

There are the big organisations, such as, the Butterfly Foundation, headspace, the Young and Well CRC, Orygen Youth Health and many others, who are all doing exceptional work to assist young people in Australia. But I would also like to mention the little ones. These are often actually generated by young people themselves using the online environment to help themselves and to help their peers. They might be websites, they might school based clubs in some cases or Facebook pages that have been started and which are driven by young people doing it for themselves, reaching out to their peers to offer support, understanding and assistance. Really, it is a bit like peer work. Often these will be young people who have experienced cyberbullying and who therefore are much more able to offer that consolation, assistance and support to their peers because that removes that sense of being judged for what a person is going through, which is one of the essences of the way peer work can be so effective.

An instance that I am aware of is the 'What about me' Facebook page, which is convened by two young people, Millicent Warne and Billy Russell. It started in South Australia. I met Billy when I was doing a school visit. He had started a club at his school to support students who were being bullied. He was an amazingly mature and compassionate young man of about 16 when I met him. It is interesting that he and Millicent Warne have started this 'What about me' Facebook page, which has been taken up with absolute enthusiasm by many, many young people and has had an amazing number of 'likes'. It basically specialises in allowing young people to talk about the difficulties that they are facing. It offers support and helps them to feel strong. It focuses on providing positive, affirming messages.

We also have clubs like the Gay Straight Alliance at Unley High School, which was part of the Safe Schools Coalition. It is a wonderful young organisation and has made a wonderful film about the importance of young people being able to be proud of who they are.

This brings me to the wider consideration of how we tackle the increasing difficulty of the way that cyberbullying and other forms of attack can undermine the mental health and wellbeing of young people in society. We need, as a society and a community, a broader conversation about how we can build resilience in young people-but basically in all of us. It is about allowing and enabling people to take control of their lives so that they are less susceptible to the judgements and the toxicity that might be thrown at them by other people. One of the core aspects of that is creating a society where we are inclusive and respectful and we celebrate the fact that people can be proud of who they are as unique individuals, whatever their characteristics are.

Amongst other things, this bill establishes a Children's e-Safety Commissioner and sets out the commissioner's functions and powers. It also establishes a complaints system for cyberbullying material targeted at an Australian child. One of the key functions of the Children's e-Safety Commissioner will be to administer the complaints system. The Australian Greens have some concerns about this bill. We are concerned to think that this might be considered some kind of panacea for what is a nuanced and complex problem which affects many, many young Australians. I know that my colleague Senator Ludlam has talked about our responses to the bill, but I guess in the end the question has to be predominantly: how effective and how practical will this bill be?

It is interesting to note this impressive tome here, which is the report of the Joint Select Committee on Cyber-Safety that was published in June 2011, High-wire act: cyber-safety and the young. The committee took a lot of submissions and considered a lot of evidence about the issue of cybersafety and how to keep young people safe. It ended up providing a significant list of recommendations-32 in all-which reflect the complexity of this issue. None of those was for a Children's e-Safety Commissioner, as it turns out.

One of the things I really want to say is that we need to consider the capacity of the mental health system to assist and support young people who are experiencing mental ill health as a result of bullying that they have experienced. We also need to consider how, as a community and a society, we can create conditions that foster resilience, respect and wellbeing. We have clear evidence that one of the most effective ways of dealing with cyberbullying is to educate parents and teachers about how to handle such situations and to educate children themselves from a young age. Again, it is about assisting young children to understand why other people may be doing the cyberbullying. In some cases, that can assist to take the sting out of what is occurring, build resilience and give children strategies for conflict resolution and being able to, if you like, deconstruct the situation that is going on. And, ultimately, giving children the ability to find and believe in their own value will make them more able to withstand some of the things that they are experiencing.

I want to have a bit of a critique of the effectiveness at the moment of our mental health system in supporting the young people who are being severely affected by cyberbullying. We know that, for a range of reasons, a significant proportion of young people are experiencing mental health challenges. I talked about that a bit earlier. But what does it look like to create a caring society where all young people can have access to the support and services they need to live long, full and healthy lives, to get through the tricky time of adolescence, to emerge as young adults and then to grow older, understanding how to be as safe and well as they can be?


How can we create an approach to youth wellbeing that builds resilience, is adolescent centred and has the potential to prevent mental illness later in life? The truth is that right now we do not know much about what is happening in the mental health space. The government is remaining tight-lipped. We do know that mental health organisations across the country are plagued by funding uncertainty, with questions about their longevity and what the future may bring. Some organisations are having trouble retaining staff, and this is particularly the case in rural areas. In some cases, much-valued and much-needed practitioners are packing up and heading back to the city because they just do not know if they will have a job in the months to come and they cannot afford to take the risk to wait to find out. It goes without saying that this uncertainty is crippling, especially in rural areas, where it is difficult enough already to attract and retain much-needed mental health professionals, but where the need is often the greatest.

As I learned during my rural mental health consultation in 2012 and 2013, young people in rural areas particularly often feel isolated and unable to seek help. It may be that their town is small and privacy is hard to come by. Stigma is felt very acutely by young people in those situations. They may lack peers of their age or they may be worried that their peers will find out about their mental ill-health and stigma will rear its ugly head again. I also heard from parents and grandparents who are desperate to get help for their kids and their grandkids in rural areas. With a dearth of drug and alcohol rehabilitation services, there are often few options for those who are battling these issues, which frequently appear as a comorbidity with mental ill health.

We know that the mental health sector is waiting with anxiety to see the report of the National Mental Health Commission's Review of Mental Health Programs and Services. We know that report was provided to this government months ago but has not been released, despite numerous orders by the Senate for it to be laid on the table. We know about the chaotic transition from Medicare Locals to Primary Health Networks that is looming halfway through this year and the confusion-even within the department-about whether and how existing mental health programs which are currently being delivered through Medicare Locals will continue. All of this is contributing to a growing sense of uncertainty in the mental health sector, and the young people who need help are not immune from this.

It is in the best interest of young Australians that we give the funding certainty and security to the mental health organisations which they need for support, and create policy settings which encourage young people to thrive. While cyberbullying is certainly an issue that adolescents across the country are facing in apparently increasing numbers, I believe that we need to think more broadly about wellbeing and what it means to create a society where all young people have access not only to mental health services and support as they grow up but the resources and the assistance to feel great and optimistic about who they are and what the future holds for them. That encompasses a whole range of other policy settings: policy settings about assistance with transitioning from school to work; it is about assisting young people to find work; and it is about assisting those young people who are unable to fit within the mainstream schooling system and who need additional support-the sort of assistance that organisations like Youth Connections were doing such a wonderful job in providing before their funding was cut.

I believe that we also need to consider carefully the sort of modelling that our leaders and our institutions are offering to the young people growing up today. We see increasingly 'uncivil' interactions and debates; we see these on television, in films, in this parliament and in the public arena, and-dare I say it, fresh in my mind as it is-we see the way that people comport themselves in Senate committees. Sometimes it seems that there is now 'open slather' on toxic and abusive language that is sanctioned by the very people who are then deploring the fact that there is bullying happening to our young people. We have a responsibility to model the sort of behaviour that we say is appropriate in this society. Too often, I think that the leaders and those who have power in this country-whether they are shock jocks, media commentators or politicians-actually fail in that duty. And then we have the temerity to criticise young people for modelling what they see their elders do.

I think this whole discussion and concern about cyberbullying and bullying generally in what is often an increasingly toxic debate in our society is a reason to pause to think-to think about what sort of society we want to promote. What sort of resilience and wellbeing do we want to promote among our young people? They are our future and it is so important that they feel valued-that we create a setting where young people can feel proud to be who they are in their own unique identities. It should be that they are not criticised, that they are not undermined and that they are not devalued-whatever that is: wherever they live, whatever their background and whatever their identity.

In considering this Enhancing Online Safety for Children Bill, I encourage my colleagues in this Senate to consider that this is an opportunity to think more broadly about what it is that is giving rise to this cyberbullying and what it is that can help protect and promote the wellbeing of our precious resource, our young people in Australia.

Back to All News