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Australia Must Take The Lead in Global Youth Mental Health

02 Dec 2019
By Billi McCarthy-Price
A group of school children at a village school in Vanua Levu, Fiji. Photo by Marc Anderson.

Australia is a global leader in youth mental health research and treatment development. It should leverage this expertise to ensure that evidence-based best-practice youth-friendly models are prioritised in Universal Health Coverage provisions, particularly in the priority region of the Indo-Pacific.

This year’s World Mental Health Day, celebrated on 10 October, saw a growing number of individuals, celebrities, and high-level government representatives from around the world advocating for increased mental health awareness, reduced social stigma, and greater help-seeking. Indeed, there is a global push for increased recognition of the impacts that mental health has on productivity, wellbeing, and life satisfaction.

Mental health was one of a number of priority issues discussed at this year’s United Nations (UN) High-level Meeting on Universal Health Coverage (UHC), with the resulting political declaration formally adopted by all Member States. The declaration “reaffirms the right of every human being to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health, without distinction of any kind.” This was first time that mental health was given such prominence in language used by the UN and its Member States, reflecting the greater prioritisation of mental health and wellbeing globally.

This is good news for young people, for whom positive mental health and wellbeing is fundamental to achieving essential developmental milestones. Mental ill-health presents a unique challenge to this cohort, with 75 percent of all long-term mental disorders appearing before the age of 25 years. Globally, suicide is the second leading cause of death in young people aged 15-29 years.

Young people are disproportionately impacted by treatment delays and even then, those who do seek help often fail to receive effective evidence-based treatment. Not adequately addressing mental health conditions in youth can allow these to extend into adulthood, increasing the risk of life-long impairment and limiting young people’s ability to live purposeful and meaningful life.

Australia plays an important role in the research, development, and provision of effective treatment options for young people experiencing mental ill-health. Through the work of youth mental health organisations, such as Orygen and headspace, Australia is leading research in early psychosis treatment, early intervention in emerging disorders, youth suicide prevention, and the burgeoning role of “e-health” or online treatment supports.

As international UHC efforts incorporate increasing provisions for mental health, Australia has the opportunity to take on a position of global leadership in ensuring that evidence-based best-practice models that are acceptable, appropriate, and accessible for young people are prioritised.

World Health Organisation analysis outlines a distinct economic incentive for this greater prioritisation, as low levels of recognition and access to care for depression and anxiety – the most prevalent mental disorders – results in a global economic loss of US $1 trillion every year.

Philanthropic and non-government organisations, such as the Gates Foundation, are increasingly allocating pools of funding to address mental ill-health as a means to reduce its significant impacts on national prosperity measures.

For many low- and middle- income countries, mental health and wellbeing is still heavily stigmatised, with low rates of diagnosis and even lower funding pools. In these countries, more than 80 percent of the minute public funding made available to mental health goes directly to mental hospitals. The number of mental health workers available to support individuals is less than 2 for every 100,000 people in low-income countries, compared to over 70 for every 100,000 in high-income countries. Further, spending allocations in these countries leave little to no funding to invest in robust, high-quality mental health research.

Australia has an opportunity to share its extensive expertise in this space. Australia can assist other countries to strengthen their capacity to conduct rigorous youth mental health research and to build their own local evidence , rather than relying on unrepresentative and, sometimes, irrelevant data from other nations. This locally sourced data can then be used to inform the design, establishment, investment and delivery of more appropriate and effective mental health treatments to support vulnerable young people in these nations.

This kind of information-sharing and capacity-building may become an increasingly useful lever in Australia’s development assistance strategy, which is particularly important in the priority region of the Indo-Pacific. There, public mental health faces increasing pressure from various factors, including gender inequality and food and water insecurity. Further, 60 percent of the world’s young people (around 750 million) inhabit this region; young people who would benefit significantly from greater prioritisation in international aid and development resources.

While mental health does not get a guernsey in the 2017 Australian Foreign Policy White Paper, there is significant mention of the desire for Australia to contribute to building the capacity and efficacy of nations’ health systems via the development assistance program. Unlike physical health, however, mental health treatment often requires a longer-term approach, limiting its utility and appeal in short-term disaster relief or one-off aid packages. There are, however, increasing calls for mental health and psychosocial supports to be included as standard practice in all international responses in high-intensity conflict zones and natural disasters to ensure that those experiencing extreme distress, particularly children and young people, can be effectively supported.

There is an opportunity for the Australian Government, through the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, to increase resourcing for mental health and psychosocial initiatives in both disaster responses and long-term development activities This could be achieved through its developmental assistance program, by ensuring that mental health is prioritised in the same manner as physical health, and provisioning funds to build local evidence-bases, train and strengthen the capacity of local staff, and deliver early intervention mental health initiatives. By leveraging its expertise, Australia could play a leading role in assisting Indo-Pacific nations to develop holistic UHC systems that include mental health and wellbeing services, particularly ones appropriate for young people.

Prioritising mental health within the Australian Government’s engagement activities in the Indo-Pacific will not only help to strengthen the region’s health and wellbeing and increase its resilience, it will also be a clear demonstration of Australia’s commitment to investing in the hearts and minds of the largest group of young people in the world, upon whose (preferably healthy) shoulders rest the futures of these nations.

Billi McCarthy-Price is the Chief Executive Officer of Global Voices, an independent youth-led Australian non-profit. 

This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.