Youth voices key to understanding their mental health

Four happy friends at sunset beach party run to the water

Dr Jessica Stubbing and Sir Peter Gluckman are two of a number of University of Auckland experts featured in the Ingenio cover story about youth mental health.

Listening to the voices of youth is at the heart of a new study by Koi Tū, led by research fellow Dr Jessica Stubbing. It will explore the issues that contribute to poor youth mental health.

“Anxiety rates are going up. Depression rates are going up, self-harm rates are going up. What we still don’t really have is a great grasp on why,” says Jessica.

The first stage will canvas the views of young people by encouraging them to explore issues and bounce ideas off each other, in what Jessica describes as a participatory collaborative approach.

“They’re the experts on their experience with mental health and they’re also the experts on what helps. What we know from international research is that young people don’t engage in services that they don’t perceive as relevant to young people. They just don’t show up.”

Research indicates that cultural disconnection also contributes to poor mental health, so Jessica’s team will work with iwi and “tap into where young people are – go to their marae, their sports clubs, their churches, and really engage with young people at source”.

Key adult stakeholders, including educators and mental health practitioners, will also be consulted to compare the similarities and differences in perspectives. The ultimate aim is to identify factors that can then be shared with a much broader audience.

“The goal is to present findings that can help determine spending and research development, especially as services transition into this new framework over the next few years under Health New Zealand.”

One of the key issues is expected to be around the provision of quality services that are holistic and culturally receptive.

“Young people want dedicated, responsive treatment with a provider who can be flexible to their needs and properly explain a treatment plan. The providers need to be adaptive to what’s coming up for them too.”

The two-year project is being funded by Graeme and Robyn Hart, and Jessica says such support reflects the fact that many New Zealanders are frustrated with the current system and want to see real progress that makes a difference to services and statistics.

“We have this fantastic funding and a group of people who are incredibly invested in understanding what is going on so we can fix the problem at the core.”

Professor Sir Peter Gluckman, a paediatrician and director of Koi Tū, says the research is vital for the future.

“In this urgent crisis, we need to recognise that factors that matter for one child may be different from factors affecting another child in a different context.

“So, what might impact the emotional status of a recent young Asian migrant might be very different from factors affecting young Māori living in rural New Zealand. We need to know, so we can understand the services needed in each situation.”

He says there’s no single reason for the rising numbers of children and teens experiencing depression, anxiety, eating disorders, self-harm and a lack of resilience.

“It’s a complex issue, but it’s a multi-dimensional problem that can relate to the way children are reared, educated, early life experiences and so on.”

Sir Peter says while improvements to mental healthcare are important, both in investment and recruitment, early intervention is the key to change.

“If between conception and three years of life the child’s brain is challenged in its development, then it is impaired and, through life, they’ll have deficiencies in their ability to regulate emotions.

“Add to that all the things that happen in adolescence, with society changing boundaries. That puts on more pressure. If early life experiences have impaired the child’s psychological resilience, alongside greater stresses in adolescence coming from social media and from living in an uncertain world, then you can see the challenges.”

He says the situation hasn’t just been created by the pandemic.

“We have seen around the Western world a doubling to tripling of young people with psychological distress in the past 15 years. This cannot be ignored. It’s not just social media. It’s not just digital media. There have been lots of other sociological changes … including more maternal stress.

“People think it’s a single problem with a single magic-bullet solution; it’s not. But there’s no use waiting until these kids fall off the cliff. We should prevent that by focusing on the early years. We invest poorly in the early years in New Zealand.

“We must also be more willing to think about how the education system, as well as the parental system, can stop children falling off the cliff.

“We have to admit that the environment we’ve created for young people, in all sorts of ways, is not a healthy one.”

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