Teens are the gatekeepers to mental health services: What can schools do to assist?

An award-winning program offers schools the chance to help students support their peers when seeking help for mental health and substance use.

“One in 10 Australians between 16 and 24 are struggling with a substance use disorder. Our challenge is that the peers they go to for help, don’t have the necessary knowledge, confidence and skills to effectively intervene.” Professor Dan Lubman.

Professor Dan Lubman is Executive Clinical Director of Turning Point and Professor of Addiction Studies at the Monash Addiction Research Centre. He says that while young people are often willing to seek professional help for depression, they are more likely to speak to their friends for advice about alcohol and other drug problems.

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“Friends are highly influential during adolescence, so young people are ideally positioned to act as ‘gate-keepers’ to mental health services,” says Professor Lubman. “[But] so many people experiencing addiction have told me that their issues began during school, but their friends didn’t know how to help.”

The MAKINGtheLINK project

As a direct response to this, a partnership between Turning Point, Headspace, the Alcohol & Drug Foundation, the Victorian Department of Education, and the Australian Secondary Principals Association created MAKINGtheLINK, an award-winning school-based program that equips students with knowledge and practical skills to support their peers in seeking help for mental health and substance use.

A large randomised controlled trial of MAKINGtheLINK in 22 schools involving almost 2,500 students across metropolitan Melbourne has just been completed, and found that students who received the program were more likely to seek professional help, feel more confident about supporting their peers and report a reduction in stigmatising attitudes.

Specifically targeting middle adolescence, a crucial developmental phase, the evidence-based program aligns with the Australian school curriculum and is delivered by teachers, providing Year 9 students and teachers with the knowledge and skills to identify mental health issues early, engage with and help their friends (or peers) to overcome barriers to accessing professional help.

MAKINGtheLINK has been found to be effective in improving help-seeking and peer support by changing adolescents’ attitudes and intentions around alcohol and drug harms.

“Our approach is designed to set young people up for life, with skills to address any mental health and substance use issues they may experience,” explains Professor Lubman. “By building students’ knowledge and practical skills in supporting their friends, MAKINGtheLINK breaks down barriers to professional help-seeking, promotes a culture of peer support, encourages earlier intervention for those at-risk and builds awareness of local services and support.”

Dan Lubman, image supplied

The importance of peers in help-seeking behaviours

Professor Lubman shares three vital findings of the early study that all educators need to understand.

  1. We need to help empower young people to support each other.

“Teenagers normally go to their friends or peers first if they have worries and they can be reluctant to seek professional help for mental health concerns, particularly for substance use,” says Lubman. “The challenge is that peers often don’t have the necessary knowledge and skills.”

Empowering young people and providing them the skills they need to help each other, can help circumvent some of the barriers young people have to help-seeking behaviours such as limited mental health knowledge as well as the perceived social stigma and embarrassment associated with help-seeking.

  1. We need to encourage early intervention.

Young Australians aged 16 to 24 years have the highest rates of substance use disorders compared with other age groups, with almost 1 in 10 struggling with one. A recent ABS survey found almost 40 percent of young people aged 16 to 24 experienced a mental health disorder in the year prior, almost double the rate amongst the general population.

“Seeking help early is crucial because it means students can get help before a mental health concern, such as substance use, starts to develop into a mental illness and/or become a more long-term concern,” explains Lubman. “Delaying help can impact a teen’s quality of life as they transition into adulthood and continue throughout adulthood. Like any health issue, early intervention improves outcomes and the longer people wait, the more complications they are likely to face.”

  1. We have effective treatments/support for mental health concerns, including substance use.

“Because we don’t talk about addiction or mental health a lot, there is a lot of confusion about what it is, how people can get help and the treatments and support on offer, [but] the good news is we have effective treatments and support is available,” says Lubman. “The challenge is because of stigma, many people delay seeking help for years, even decades.”

Stage 2 Calling for secondary schools to come on board

The Minister for Health and Aged Care, Mark Butler, recently announced a $1.3 million grant, which will fund the next stage of the MAKINGtheLINK project.  The grant will fund the creation of a scalable digital adaption of the original program, that if found to be effective, could be rolled out at secondary schools across Australia.

“We are thrilled to be co-designing a digital version of MAKINGtheLINK with schools, students, parents, and our partners,” Lubman says.” We are excited to further develop this unique program for schools across Australia. Together, our goal is to develop a scalable intervention to reduce mental health, alcohol and substance harms among students in Australia.”

The adapted program will be created via a process of codesign, ensuring the digital program is consistent with how students consume information today. The program will educate students on how to encourage their friends to seek professional support for mental health concerns such as anxiety, depression, risky or substance use (e.g., alcohol, vaping, cannabis or prescription misuse) and gambling.

The researchers are looking to work with a broad range of school types (including public and independent) with representation from different socioeconomic and cultural backgrounds and diverse geographic locations throughout Australia.

“Mental health concerns can impact any teenager, no matter where they are from. Designing and scaling effective solutions requires us all to work together. We are excited about working with proactive schools who are dedicated to empowering their students to support each other effectively. We encourage secondary schools to get involved. We have a real opportunity to work together as we strive to address one of the key adolescent public health concerns in Australia.” Professor Dan Lubman

 There are a variety of ways in which schools can get involved, including the Stakeholder Advisory Committee (limited places), Community of Practice, co-design, pilot trial and randomised controlled trials of the new adaptation of MAKINGtheLINK (Victoria only), as well as the scaled implementation (National).

“There are some exciting opportunities for Australian schools to participate in this project in several powerful ways. Schools can collaborate with education sector leaders, governing bodies, service providers, partner organisations, policymakers and parents to contribute valuable insights to the project’s design, implementation and expansion,” explains Jodie Matar, Project Manager for MAKINGtheLINK.

Schools can get more information on the original MAKINGtheLINK program here.

Find the Expression of Interest form for schools here

Shannon Meyerkort

Shannon Meyerkort is a freelance writer and the author of "Brilliant Minds: 30 Dyslexic Heroes Who Changed our World", now available in all good bookstores.

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