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During many months of lockdown, Danica Meas noticed a constant theme in remote chats with the friends she should have been seeing face-to-face; each began with “a mental health check in”.
“Every conversation I’d have with my friends or my peers at uni was to do with mental health. Experiences of low mental health were very common,” says Ms Meas, 21, a global studies and community development student.
Danica Meas, Ravi Teja and Coco Dwyer are among a group of young people advising VicHealth about strategies to help their cohort recover after the mental health strain of the pandemic.Credit:Wayne Taylor
Having never required treatment for mental health issues, Ms Meas is one of the many young Victorians who discovered she needed support.
Research in Victoria and overseas shows the mental health of 18-24 year olds deteriorated the most during the pandemic. Because of that trend, Ms Meas has joined a group of young people asking for their diverse needs to be put at the centre of community rebuilding plans, and advising VicHealth on ways to do it.
“We want to be heard and supported by the community as much as possible,” she said.
The participants applied online to advise the state’s health promotion foundation as part of a program to create 100,000 ways for young people to make new friendships and connections.
The Big Connect, to be launched by Health Minister Martin Foley on Tuesday, will aim to help address Victoria’s “mental health wave”, including huge numbers of young people needing hospital treatment for anxiety, depression or eating disorders.
Ravi Teja, an international student doing a masters at Melbourne University when the pandemic hit, describes himself as a “social being”, who struggled with a lack of support in isolation, as well as a lack of friends in his five-kilometre radius.
He also missed the community in his volunteer role at Out for Australia, a mentoring and support group for LGBTIQ professionals.
“It had a significant impact on my mental health,” said Mr Teja. He found it hard to locate student counsellors who were culturally or gender diverse.
“Most of them were cisgendered [identify as their birth gender] and diversity was lacking in terms of them being able to understand my cultural perspective,” said Mr Teja, 26, who now works in project management.
“Sometimes I seek employee assistance support at my workplace, [but] it’s just really difficult to find someone from your same cultural background who understands your perspective and family dynamic.”
He wants far more mental health education, and “safe and inclusive spaces for people in online hubs or recreation centres where people can connect and feel like they belong”.
Liss Gabb, manager of social connection and mental wellbeing at VicHealth, said a survey of 750 Victorian 18 to 25 year-olds found 36 per cent felt they did not fit in with their local communities or neighborhood and 78 per cent of parents were worried about the pandemic’s impact on their child’s ability to socially connect.
“It’s enormously important to all of us that young people are healthy and ready to face the future,” she said. “We know the indirect effects of COVID will be intergenerational. ”
Coco Dwyer, 19, deferred this semester of global studies at Monash University because of the impact of isolation, and says to be disrupted at a time of great growth left many young people “stagnant” and struggling.
“People are just trying to push past what happened and forget the last two years, and get back into the business of living. But there’s a lot of people dealing with mental health issues for the first time,” they said.
Identifying as trans, and living with chronic illness, they said the road map back to community health must involve consultation with diverse youth.
“There’s been a lot of conversations about young people and mental health, but it’s time to action some really tangible things. Mental health of young people has been exploited as a political talking point for some time, but what we’re asking for isn’t empathy we need structural change and accessible resources.”
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