Indigenous artwork by Serika Shillingsworth

Tackling Indigenous youth mental health challenges

26 October 2018

The University of Sydney marked Mental Health Month by bringing together health experts and Indigenous community heroes to discuss their experiences and different approaches to tackling Indigenous youth mental health challenges in the 21st century. 

This Sydney Ideas event, moderated by Brooke Boney, a Gamilaroi woman and Triple J's breakfast newsreader, was a dynamic discussion inspired by personal stories of survival and courage.

The panel consisted of Joel Thompson, an Aboriginal man and a professional rugby league player who developed the Mindset Project in 2017, Mark Spinks, the Founder and Chairman of the Babana Aboriginal Men’s Group and Professor Ian Hickie, Co-Director of the Brain and Mind Centre at the University of Sydney.

Producer: Anna Burns

Editor: Ira Ferris

Sydney Ideas
Join our free talks

Cultural competence is key

The evening was opened by Professor Juanita Sherwood, Associate Dean (Indigenous Strategy and Services) in the Faculty of Medicine and Health. Professor Sherwood highlighted the need for culturally respectful approaches to discussing and resolving Indigenous health issues, and how important cultural competence is at the University level.

“We should be providing an educational space that is promising and promoting an agenda that acknowledges our Indigenous heritage."

By propagating culturally respectful communities and spaces, we are creating safe environments where we can all have open discussions about a lot of really difficult issues, including mental health issues.

Professor Ian Hickie supported the sentiment that greater cultural awareness was paramount. “Understanding the complexities of cultures and connecting with kids earlier will dramatically increase mental health support for all Australians.” 

A sense of community and belonging

Joel Thompson confidently shared his own personal mental health journey, from a troubled kid growing up in Ivanhoe, New South Wales, to a professional footballer with the world at his feet, and now as a role model and mentor to Indigenous youth. He drew on his own life experiences and mental health battles to show others that they too have choices and can change their lives.

“A big part of my own healing has been going out and helping others in the community. My wife encouraged me to start giving back and use my spare time productively.”

In 2017 Joel set up The Mindset Project, a mental health and motivational initiative that aims to help people develop a positive view of their potential and make life choices that promote growth and wellbeing.

Professor Hickie also encouraged people to stay connected and be an active part of communities that support one another, and not take them for granted. He added that when people within a community are struggling or start to withdraw, that’s when you need to reach out.

Have a purpose in life. Have hope.

Joel noted in the discussion that at the beginning he wasn’t confident about sharing his story – his illness – but he soon saw the impact it had on his younger Indigenous friends and so he kept connecting with the kids and sharing his battles.

“Having people like myself out there, who have come through it and spoken about it, that will help others feel more comfortable. Many young guys have come up to me and said how they were struggling but that they knew my story and knew that I had struggled, and so they felt comfortable to come and speak to me."

Mark Spinks agreed. “Mentoring is critical in the youth mental health space. It’s about finding the pieces of the jigsaw: culture, mentors, self esteem. These are the things that will paint the picture of a positive future for Aboriginal people.” 

The panel turned to the audience where people shared personal stories of loss, mental illness and struggles. One brave woman shared a story about a recent family trauma – the loss of her nephew to suicide. Her concluding remarks were that kids need less drugs, more hope and that connecting Elders and young people is key to helping the next generation of Indigenous Australians.

Speak up and listen up

Mark Spinks established Babana Aboriginal Men’s Group more than a decade ago as a simple concept to build and empower local Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander men in the inner-city community of Redfern in Sydney.

“We sat in a circle and we listened. We listened to each other. Everyone was there for a reason and they each had an important story to share."

A strong message repeated throughout the evening was about encouraging people to tell their own story, in their own words. Being heard and understood is a way of healing but it can also inspire others to speak up and seek help themselves. “It’s a matter of sitting with your fellow man or woman and having a yarn, listening, opening your heart and opening your arms – embracing people.”

“Don’t hide your mental health battles, share, tell your story in your words and seek the help you need,” said Joel. Listening is essential in our all our lives but it is especially important in the care of those suffering mental illness.

“People that come and tell me stories, that is a way of healing for them. It’s very simple really,” said Mark Spinks.

“We need to encourage people to share their experiences, it’s critical in helping young people get the treatment they need,” said Professor Hickie.

“Kids are taking their lives. That’s what’s going on. So we gotta listen and see what more we can do,” Mark added.

Youth mental health and technology

“We need to be aware that we all have tough times, we all have difficult times and when this happens we tend to withdraw because being in contact with other people is hard,” said Professor Hickie. “So one of the issues is to keep people connected and in this modern world of technology we can stay in connection so much more.

To that end, the Brain and Mind Centre has been working to transform the mental health care of young people and has a priority to use new online technologies to better partner with health organisations and services, specifically within Indigenous communities, and to reach kids in remote areas where services are limited.

“There are kids in environments where unfortunately they never get appropriate mental health care. That’s why it’s important for us to connect and engage with the most disadvantaged rural, regional and urban communities,” Professor Hickie said.

The Brain and Mind Centre's Project Synergy uses data collected through digital technologies to improve wellbeing, promote help-seeking behaviours and, if necessary, facilitate rapid clinical care and engagement with online and face-to-face clinical services.

Headspace at the Brain and Mind Centre

During the evening a spotlight was shone on the incredible work being undertaken by Professor Hickie and his team at the Brain and Mind Centre in partnership with headspace Camperdown, the national youth mental health foundation that provides early intervention and mental health services to 12 to 25 year olds.

The centre's research program is heavily integrated with headspace Camperdown, enabling it to efficiently translate research findings into effective clinical services.

Find out more about how the centre is transforming mental health care. You can also access support services and complete a mental-health checklist.

Missed the event? Listen to the full podcast here.

  • This podcast was recorded at a Sydney Ideas event held on 23 October as part of October’s Mental Health Month. Download the podcast to hear the full story. 
  • Sydney Ideas brings together leading thinkers from Australia, and around the world, to the Sydney community. Join one of our upcoming events.