Blacksmiths’ Emily Gain, 20, says she is “really open” about her mental illness.
“I want to be an amazing psychologist one day and so you've got to practice what you preach,” she said.
“If I’m not open, how can I expect other people to be open to me?
“It’s happened, and it’s the path I’m on at the moment.”
Living with depression and anxiety, related to a traumatic incident that occurred three years ago, Emily says her experience of mental illness has informed some of the biggest decisions in her adult life.
She is currently in her third year of a Bachelor of Psychology at the University of Newcastle.
“It’s definitely inspired the volunteering, and the choosing of my degree and everything I am working towards,” she said.
“It sucks sometimes, but I wouldn't be here if that hadn't happened.”
Emily is one of three young people using their firsthand knowledge of mental illness to help their peers.
According to figures released by headspace on Monday, to coincide with the start of National Mental Health Week, the number of young Australians reporting psychological distress has tripled since 2007.
Of most concern is the mental health of young people in Emily’s age group.
More than one third, 38 per cent, of 18 to 21-year-olds are reporting high or very high levels of psychological distress, according to the youth mental health service.
This is compared to 20 per cent of 12 to 14-year-olds.
As the coordinator of a mental health support group at her university, Emily said she was not surprised by the figures.
“I honestly just think it’s the stress of trying to find your way,” she said.
“I think it’s just deciding what you want to do, changing career paths and changing relationships.
“I think you’re exposed to a lot more as well, and have more experiences that make you question things or make you feel ill at ease.”
Emily organises the monthly support groups for university students who want to talk about what’s going on in their head.
The program is run by a team of 20 psychology students, all volunteers, who have undergone a day of training with the Mental Health Association of NSW’s charity ‘WayAhead’.
“We're not pretending we're psychologists,” Emily said.
“You don't have to say anything you don't want to, it’s completely confidential, and because it’s a group it’s not focusing on you.
“You can hear other people’s stories and you can hear what strategies they use,” she said.
The group also shares resources and links students to professional services.
“It’s just a nice way to talk to people and feel like you’re helping,” Emily said.
For Everett Park, talking with other young people has been the difference between feeling “pretty alone” and feeling strong enough to support others.
For the past eight months Everett, 15, of West Wallsend, has attended a fortnightly support group for boys who are transgender (trans) and their parents.
Everett said the group has helped him cope with depression.
“I didn't really have anyone to talk to who would understand who was also trans,” he said.
“It really helped with talking about how you feel, and ways to help feel better.”
Everett said meeting other trans boys his age also built up his confidence while he was coming out at school.
“When I hadn't really come out at school and was still wearing a skirt, Wez (the group’s facilitator) would make it seem better by calling it a kilt, to make it more manly. It helped talking to the guys.”
Wez Saunders, who is the volunteer facilitator of the group, said all the boys struggle with mental health issues.
The National LGBTI Health Alliance reported in 2013 that where differentiated data was available on the mental health of LGBTI Australians, it indicated that rates of depression, anxiety and generally poor mental health are highest among “trans and bisexual people”.
Headspace says the experience of transphobia (prejudicial treatment against trans people) increases the likelihood of depression, anxiety, self-harm and substance abuse in young people.
“You’re able to slip under the radar until puberty,” Mr Saunders said.
I want to get it out there that mental health is a very important thing in everyone’s lifeMaddy Stuart
“And then they get incredibly anxious and depressed. They know what their gender is. They know that they’re different.”
He said it was heartening to see the camaraderie within the group.
“It doesn’t matter what they look like, they see each other as boys. That means they can talk to each other about all the things they could never talk about.”
Everett said it felt good to listen to the experiences of boys facing similar issues.
“It’s fun to talk to some other people the same age,” he said.
Maddy Stuart, 19, from Metford said she also came up against mental health challenges while she was in high school.
“My Year 8 counsellor referred me to headspace because I was just feeling really down and I didn’t know why,” she said.
“I still struggle with a little depression and anxiety, but the counsellors are amazing.”
Her positive experience at the youth mental health service inspired Maddy to become a volunteer for the Maitland headspace’s youth reference group.
“I went there because I knew a few people, kind of acquaintances, and now we’re best friends,” she said.
The reference group helps promote headspace and has some say in making decisions at the centre.
“It’s a group of young people that help with public events, like stalls at events,” Maddy said.
“It’s also the advocacy. I want to get it out there that mental health is a very important thing in everyone’s life.”
Studying social work, Maddy says can she trace her interest in helping others to those early sessions with her school counsellor.
“She’s what really inspired me to get into this field and start volunteering,” she said.
“And then through that I've met the best people in my life.”
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