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Chaplains says it’s time to listen to young people’s clear and growing worries about mental health

Health issues: Tackling mental health issues requires building relationships with people and listening.

CATHOLIC chaplains have reacted to the findings of a new youth survey, saying the high number of young people concerned about mental health should be a call to action to the Church as well as Australia’s mental health sector.

“Young people are calling it as they see it, with all their hopes and fears and expectations,” state chaplain at Mission Australia Deacon Peter Devenish-Meares, who is also a chaplain to the Queensland Police and army communities, said.

Mission Australia’s Youth Survey 2018, released on November 28, reveals four in 10 (43 per cent) of young people aged between 15 and 19 years identified mental health as the top issue facing Australia.

That figure is up from 33 per cent in 2017, and is almost triple the result in 2015 (15 per cent).

Among more than 28,000 young Australians surveyed, coping with stress (43 per cent), school or study problems (34 per cent) and mental health (31 per cent) were identified as the top three areas of personal concern.

“The reality is mental health is a component of overall health – our physical health, our mental and social health, our spiritual health and having a definite life purpose and identity,” a chaplain to Queensland’s veterans community Deacon Gary Stone said.

“Firstly, we need to move our whole approach to health from focus on treatment after the event to a focus on promoting holistic wellness education to avoid health crises.

“Secondly, any response focusing on mental health alone will fail unless a total holistic health and well-being regime of education and treatment is undertaken.

“People succumb to mental health problems because other aspects of this life are disordered, be they physical, social, spiritual or relational.”

Mission Australia’s chief executive officer James Toomey said it was time to listen to young people’s clear and growing concerns around mental health and take immediate action to ensure all young people had access to the right supports.

“Whatever a young person’s background or circumstances, we know that access to appropriate and timely support can make a real difference in their lives,” Mr Toomey said.

“Unfortunately, we also know that help is not always there.

“The service system is difficult to navigate and the support offered can be patchy, especially outside of metro areas, and often not tailored to the needs of young people and their help-seeking preferences. This has to be tackled as a priority.

“If you live in metro Australia, services are generally easier to access and you have more comprehensive coverage than if you live in regional or remote Australia where it can be very hard to access help.”

The Youth Survey 2018 also highlighted the major challenges faced by young people, with many expressing concern about moving out of home and finding work.

More than twice the proportion of young people in regional areas than those in major cities felt that where you lived was a barrier to finding work – 13 per cent compared to six per cent.

For many young people still studying, employment is important for financial reasons, as well as allowing them to gain important skills as they transition into adulthood.

Mission Australia recommended that governments invest in educational or practical resources in schools that prepared young people for future work.

Deacon Devenish-Meares praised Catholic schools that presented students with positive education programs that explored coping, stress in the lead-up to exams, the risks of using social media and body image.

“That’s a sign of hope,” he said. “Those programs are growing, and more are needed.”

More broadly, he said the Church needed to do more to “de-stigmatise” mental health “so that people are welcomed in the parishes whoever they are”. 

That pastoral view was emphasised in a recent letter to every parish in Australia penned by the chair of the Australian Catholic Disability Council Bishop Terry Brady: “We cannot claim to be truly disciples of Jesus unless we are totally engaged in honouring His presence in each one, and in building and nurturing this community to be a living witness of that presence”.

“We need to take action; we all need to learn what it means to support people with unconditional non-judgemental love,” Bishop Brady wrote.

Deacon Devenish-Meares agreed.

“That’s a call for me and everyone else to say ‘Am I being as welcoming as I can be and am I just accepting people as they are’,” he said.

“Because people don’t just walk up to you and say ‘I have well-being or coping issues. They come up and say ‘G’day, I’m Jack’,”

Deacon Devenish-Meares said tackling mental health issues required building relationships with people, and listening.

“People open up because they trust you over time,” he said.

“They may not come to Mass and say they’ve got a mental health condition or they are grappling with self-esteem, but if they are treated with friendship and dignity I reckon they will open up over time, and hopefully they are treated with love.”

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