The importance of funding comprehensive youth mental health services is self-evident. Experts consistently tell us that all adult mental health problems first appear in adolescence.
Like many of those experts, headspace – Australia’s National Youth Mental Health Foundation – subscribes to the view that early intervention holds the most promise if we are serious about stemming the tide of mental health problems. It is no surprise then that headspace has been approached by other countries to help them replicate the headspace model.
Established in 2006, headspace now has 55 centres across Australia. By the end of 2016, that will rise to more than 100 locations. Crucially, half of these centres will be in rural and remote areas. The centres are supplemented by eheadspace (eheadspace.org.au) – a telephone, email and online counselling service – and a school support program designed to work with secondary schools to prevent suicide and provide support in the event of suicide.
More recently, additional funding has been provided for Youth Early Psychosis services through the headspace model. All of these initiatives have bipartisan support because politicians of all persuasions understand the challenges surrounding youth mental health within their own communities.
The recent criticism of headspace is feeble and, in my view, can be attributed to professional envy and differences of opinion. It’s certainly not about the evidence, which overwhelmingly supports the need for services. Nor is it about what’s best for young people and their families.
Headspace is a one-stop shop model of care (covering general health, sexual health, drug and alcohol support, vocational and educational assistance, mental health counselling and support) designed to make it easier for young people aged 12 to 25 to get help.
The model creates a visible signpost in the community that is easily identified by young people and their families and that signals the availability of age-appropriate, evidence-based support. This visibility is critical to the success of headspace because many young people have difficulty accessing the right services. Often what should be the last resort becomes the first port of call, with many people turning to hospital emergency departments.
Regardless of the issue, headspace will provide services and no specialist referral is required – that’s what makes us unique.
At the heart of headspace is youth participation. From the look and feel of a centre through to the policy positions, community awareness, and how services are delivered, the voice of young people is front and centre. That means when a young person makes contact with us, they immediately know and feel that headspace is a service for them. This engenders trust and confidence.
The purpose of a single entry point is twofold: headspace seeks to minimise levels of distress, not only for young people and their families but for others in the community, such as teachers; second, headspace tries to work with the young person at the earliest possible point to short-circuit other problems that may result from the initial problem. Often these can be more disruptive to the lives of young people. Examples of this include self-harm and suicide, problematic substance use, family breakdowns, homelessness, truancy, or unemployment, among many others.
And there’s abundant evidence to support this approach. The National Comorbidity Survey 2009 in the US suggests that about one in every four to five young people meet criteria for a mental disorder, with severe impairment across their lifetime. So it’s no surprise that the director of the US National Institute of Mental Health, Tom Insel, says early intervention holds the most promise if we are serious about stemming the tide of mental health problems.
None of this is rocket science and governments of all persuasions have for years been funding services to support young people. And yet despite the available evidence, I’m surprised there remains some scepticism.
When headspace first started, many directors of mental health facilities throughout the country were critical of the model, arguing that it was likely to increase demand for services. Today, headspace has the full support of every chief psychiatrist and director of mental health in each state and territory, as well as directors general of education across the country.
Why is this? Young people and their families consistently tell us the service is needed and valued. Our data also indicates that after three sessions, 56 per cent of young people report a reduction in psychological distress, 62 per cent report improvements in their quality of life, and 50 per cent report positive changes in their social and occupational functioning. So there are noticeable improvements. The results are preliminary but encouraging, and, for many, they represent transformational change.
Both the board and staff of headspace are focused on meeting the significant unmet need in the community. At the end of the day, the federal government has funded headspace to provide services for the Australian community. This is exactly what we intend to do.
Chris Tanti is the chief executive officer of headspace.
This article first appeared on Brisbane Times on 27 October, 2013.