Many thanks to Associate Professor Jane Burns, CEO, Young and Well Cooperative Research Centre for the following reminder as to why it is essential to engage young people in planning services for youth mental health.

Associate Professor Burns writes:

I am one of those people from a generation to know a world without computers, to make a distinction between the ‘offline’ versus ‘online’ world, real friends versus digital friends.

The world of technology – and especially the world of technology that a young person engages with – moves very quickly. Parents, teachers and other professionals who work with young people can barely keep pace with its uptake. Research relating to young people and their technology use is invariably out of date before it is published. If researchers and service providers are failing to keep pace, what hope do policy makers have?

To dismiss the role of technology use in youth mental health policy is at best ignorant and at worst dangerous. When a Minister, bureaucrat, educator, health professional or service provider dismisses the role of technology and the potential it can play in delivering services to those who are most vulnerable, those who live in remote, regional or rural communities or those families who care for children or young people who are too unwell to leave their homes because of illness or disability, I find it mind boggling.

When the opportunity came up to speak about young people and new and emerging issues for them at the GenerationNext conference, attended by over 10,000 professionals and parents, I agreed on one proviso: that I could co-present with a young person. I truly believe the only way to understand how young people use technologies and the impact it has on their day-to-day lives is through young people themselves.

Emily Mignacca is one of our Youth Brains Trust members who presented with me in Perth. Her story is highly relevant and has immediate policy implications.

She says: “The only time I truly began to realise the incredible power of the online world, was when I hit a bumpy road in my last couple of years of high school. Only 5 years ago, I vividly remember sitting on my laptop at 2am and almost ironically typing “self-harm” into that familiar Google search bar, only to be led to the worlds of ReachOut, beyondblue, Headspace and Lifeline. This one seemingly insignificant Google search became my entry point into the world of mental health. At that time, what I wanted was information, and a sense of normality that while this wasn’t okay, other people were going through the same thing – and the internet provided me with that. In the 3am darkness of my sleepless room, I was able to get a sense of support from not only the information available, but from the knowledge that it wasn’t just me against this “thing”, that I wasn’t the only one awake all night. The sense of control that I gained from the mountains of information at my fingertips gave me the courage to then seek help and essentially, join the fight.”

“Years later, thanks to smartphones, this information is now accessible literally every second of a young person’s day. Not only do we have constant access to all the information in the world, now apps have made it possible to directly interact with this information, and apply it straight to our own lives. Mood Trackers, role-play wellness games and personal mindfulness guides are all apps that I use today, and that I really believe would’ve really helped 15-year-old Emily”.

“A crucial factor is that the technologies we use need to be created, developed and utilised with young people on board every step of the way. As a young person, it can be quite clear whether a resource has been created FOR US, or WITH US. Young people are the experts of their own world and this must continue to be recognised and can be harnessed. How young people best communicate, even if this IS through technology is not necessarily WORSE than how our parents grew up, it’s just DIFFERENT”.

“What we need to work towards is building a bridge between young people, technology and the world of parents, teachers and health professionals. The reality is that for us, there is no longer a clear distinction between the online/virtual world and real life. With technology almost constantly at my fingertips, these worlds are in a permanent state of overlap. However, despite prominent media attention, this is not a bad thing”.

“Within reason, instead of endless attempts to reduce the use of technology, engage with young people, show interest in the latest app or phone or game or podcast. It’s important to remember that young people often post things online that we are too afraid to say out loud  – I certainly have done this, countless times. Engaging in this side of our lives could very possibly give you, as a parent, teacher or clinician, the first indication that something is not quite right. It should never be discounted as a possibility that we want you to see what we’re doing online; it’s often our way of crying out for help. From there, as occurred with me, a whole new world of mental health, wellness and technology is only a step away. By engaging with young people to identify the problems in their lives, we can then utilise the world of technology to provide support and build life resilience in a way that is accessible, non-threatening and incredibly familiar to us.”

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