Professor Ian Hickie, from Sydney University’s brain and mind centre, said the sense of urgency around youth mental health was overdue. “We needed to be more active in these areas pre-COVID,” he said.
“The good thing about 2020 is that the issues are absolutely on the agenda. And they’re on the agenda in schools. There’s real recognition that it was very difficult last year and will continue to be difficult this year.”
The Banksia Project’s Year 13 program is unique in addressing life beyond school, which Professor Hickie described as a welcome development in helping students who were often “dumped out the other end” of year 12 without the scaffolding and support they were used to.
A suite of other programs and tools to be used in schools this year will also aim to tackle mental health issues earlier on. The Black Dog Institute has trained 1000 school counsellors across NSW public schools to recognise students with suicidal thoughts and feelings, and is looking to extend its program.
The Smiling Mind mental health and wellbeing program will also be delivered to 17,000 primary school students across 55 of the state’s schools this term. Through the program, schools receive training for staff to help implement mindfulness-based social and emotional learning.
And ReachOut is launching a new digital survey tool to help teachers learn about the issues impacting year 7 students as they transition to high school.
Professor Hickie said those initiatives marked a positive cultural change. “Schools are reaching out, schools are very aware. We’ve had the development of some really good products and services,” he said.
“In jumping into that, the danger is a lot of people and schools go for very simplistic light touch [initiatives],” he said.
But he warned the schools might not be ready once they identity students in trouble and who needed professional help.
“Schools have got to have a longer-term plan – not just a short term ‘we bought this program’.”
Professor Hickie said it was vital schools developed long term strategies that involved working with parents and establishing links with other schools in their community.
They also need to have robust partnerships with professional care systems such as Headspace or local GPs, where students could be referred to receive qualified help. “Training programs [need to be] linked to structural service delivery,” he said.
Natassia is the education reporter for The Sydney Morning Herald.