By Otago Daily Times | Posted: Thursday June 14, 2018
Counsellors working in youth mental health around Otago have been reporting an increasing demand on their services, accompanied by a steady rise in people in the 18-25 age group being admitted to emergency mental health services. Elena McPhee looks at the possible reasons behind the phenomenon and what one school is doing to combat it.
Authorities are reporting a worrying rise in the number of young Otago people with mental health problems - and while no-one is sure what is driving the trend, an Otago teacher believes giving students pupils the skills to help themselves early could provide the light at the end of the tunnel.
Otago Boys' High School teacher Adrienne Buckingham has received a grant to run a ''mental fitness'' programme for her year 10 pupils.
The school already had counselling services, but the programme encouraged pupils to focus on their own mental health and wellbeing as a ''skill set'' that could be taught, Ms Buckingham said.
''We are the fence at the top of the cliff, rather than the ambulance at the bottom,'' she said.
Pupils were given a huge amount of information about how their bodies worked, but they were not given the same knowledge about their brains, Ms Buckingham said.
''I wish I had [those coping skills] when I was 20.''
She received funding of $5000 from the OBHS Foundation to get the programme started, and went part-time as an English teacher in order to build on her background in psychology.
She gained a diploma in positive psychology through the Langley Group in Australia, which she believed was necessary to deliver the programme in the most effective way.
''There's no other teachers in the country that have that qualification,'' she said.
Examples of skills the boys learned were building positive relationships with other people, having a ''positive thought'' ratio, and developing a ''growth mindset'' as well as working on having grit and determination and identifying and then playing to their strengths.
Ms Buckingham said her pupils were ''facing problems that did not exist'' when she was at school.
''The role of a teacher is getting more complex as the world is getting more complex.''
She understood this was the first time nationally that the programme had been run in a public school, although it had been run at private school King's College, in Auckland, before, and other schools had wellbeing co-ordinators.
Information had been going out to parents and pupils since last year, and the programme was first being delivered to in 2018.
The programme at Otago Boys' had received interest from other schools around Otago, and Ms Buckingham had also been discussing the benefits of the course with a community of learning in the Queenstown-Lakes district.
Although she was running the programme with younger pupils, ideally it would be taught at year 13 level when there was a ''disengagement'' from school, Ms Buckingham said.
''We know that they need it before they go out into the world.''
Ms Buckingham said the ongoing assessments of NCEA were an example of stressors pupils faced which previous generations had not had to cope with.
New Zealand Association of Counsellors Otago representative Jean Andrews, who worked in a high school, said in the past two years there had been an increase in mental health problems in the region, including suicidiality in children as early as year 7.
''The youngest one I know of is 10,'' she said.
''We are seeing more students all the time; they are getting more severe.''
She noticed the increase in mental health problems in younger children coincided with the now-defunct national standards system.
She also thought society was ''less healthy in some ways''.
''It's really simple things, like having a well-nourishing diet and getting enough sleep.''
Anecdotal reports of an increase in mental health problems among young people appeared to be backed up by data from the Southern District Health Board's Emergency Psychiatric Service, whose numbers showed an increase over a four-year period.
In 2013 and 2014, the proportion of children under 18 being admitted to the service hovered between 0% and about 4% every month.
However in 2016 and 2017 children frequently hit 10% of all monthly admissions.
A less dramatic rise occurred among 18 to 24-year-olds, who made up between 18% and 30% in 2013, but by 2017 were tracking over 30% most months.
Earlier this year the university's student health service said its mental health and wellbeing team had seen a 46% increase in direct contact with students this year, compared to 2017.
Youthline Otago manager Brian Lowe said his organisation - geared towards 12 to 24-year-olds - had observed an increase in calls from teens and people in their 20s dealing with depression and anxiety.
Societal and technological change were contributing factors, he said.
Mr Lowe said expectations on young people to have a ''perfect life'' - including academic success and life experiences like travelling the world, or having a perfect job - were also stressful.
''We are teaching people that life should be constantly happy, so people are struggling when they find that their life experience is different,'' Mr Lowe said.
Last year, the University of Otago decided to restructure its student mental health services due to to growing demand for mental health appointments, and Otago Polytechnic is now also working on its mental health strategy, in response to students' increasing need for support.
A 22-year-old university student who did not want to be named said she had struggled with a major depressive episode, social anxiety, and what she described as ''periodic disordered eating'' since she was 16 years old.
''I know that for me personally, a culture of comparison and unrealistic standards led to my disordered eating,'' she said.
''Social media sites like Instagram show you people only at their absolute best, and the 'likes' system places a very tangible value on how you look in photos.''
However there were other factors at play in her anxiety and depression, and she thought if people spoke about mental health as an all-encompassing term they risked making the ''nuances'' that existed between different conditions.
Otago University Students' Association welfare officer Sage Burke said university could be an isolating place, and it was possible to go days without speaking to someone.
As well as student health services being available to students and OUSA providing peer support, University of Otago students have put voluntary initiatives in place to help other students - for instance the Silverline Otago programme.
The 22-year-old student said in her experience fellow students were ''immensely supportive''.
''Three years ago I thought my illness would outcast me,'' she said.
''But if I were depressed now, I would see what Silverline does and the way students have responded to them, and I would know I was surrounded by intelligent, empathetic peers who are passionate about helping me and those like me.''
She believed open dialogue was crucial.
''When you see articles, programmes, or even posters talking about real people's real experiences of mental illness, it becomes very hard to believe you are the only one.''
Thank you to the ODT for the use of this article.