By Caitlin Fitzimmons
Young people are more likely to seek help for mental health and technology addiction than their counterparts a decade ago.
Mental health was the top reason young people contacted Kids Helpline, run by the Yourtown charity, in the 2018-2019 financial year.
Yourtown chief executive Tracy Adams said this had changed over time, because of the societal push to advocate for mental health and break down stigma.
“[The community] has created a mechanism that means people can be comfortable to talk about mental health and young people are growing up with that,” Ms Adams said.
“That is a significant contributor to the fact that young people are reaching out for support, and we should applaud that but we’ve got to make sure we have the resources to support it.”
Kids Helpline has operated for 29 years and its counsellors have dealt with 8 million “contacts” (phone calls, web chat and email) in that time.
For the first 20 years, the main reason young people called Kids Helpline was for help navigating family relationships – and this is still the case for children aged five to 12.
But mental health now represents more than a quarter of all contacts across all age groups, rising to 35 per cent for young adults, aged 19 to 25. Across all age groups, emotional wellbeing ranks second, while family relationships are third.
Ms Adams said she did not believe young people today were more prone to mental health problems, but they “had the language” to talk about it and awareness to take a preventative approach.
One of the biggest issues facing young people today was their use of technology, she said. This has long been a concern for parents and educators but it was now an emerging concern for teenagers themselves.
“We see young people now who find themselves almost addicted to technology, addicted to gamification, addicted to be always being ‘on’,” Ms Adams said.
“We often talk as adults about work-life balance and we find we are really having to work with young people about how to balance their lives around how they use technology and allow themselves space.”
While the figures are for 2018-2019, Ms Adams said the events of the past six months were leaving their mark.
“We need to be particularly vigilant right now on the issue of grief,” she said. “We’re going through a very difficult time – we’ve got young people who’ve faced the loss of their homes, their schools and their environments have been impacted by catastrophic climate events such as the fires and others.”
Last year, Kids Helpline, which is mostly self-funded through the Art Union and other fundraising, dealt with about 151,000 contacts nationally but could not answer an additional 139,000 attempted contacts because of budget constraints.
The charity has just received $5.5 million in funding over four years from the NSW government to answer an additional 18,000 contacts a year from the state. It is currently recruiting for 24 counsellors for a contact centre based in Sydney.
Ms Adams said young people were increasingly choosing web chat rather than voice calls. Kids Helpline needed more resources to support that – a counselling call was typically 32 minutes, while the same service on the web would take 52 minutes.
“The counsellor no longer has any verbal cues and is no longer actively engaging in conversation,” Ms Adams said. “They have to do everything through text-based contact, so the actual counselling session takes longer and the relationship takes time to be established.”