Uncertainty and disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic continue to take a toll on the mental wellbeing of an increasing number of young Australians – a situation which could indicate the “beginning of a national crisis,” a non-profit group dedicated to helping troubled youth has warned.
Official data from the Ted Noffs Foundation showed “skyrocketing” numbers of Victorians accessing crisis support, signalling an urgent need for governments, not just in the state but the whole country, to expand mental health and drug treatment services “before it’s too late.”
“What we are really seeing here is a broad community’s response to trauma,” said Kieran Palmer, clinical service manager at Noffs. “When we find ourselves in a traumatic situation, we crave safety, predictability, and certainty in order to recalibrate and survive. But for many Australians, COVID-19 has ripped away these vital safety nets.”
Palmer said the risks extend beyond mental health, adding that increases in drug use, alcohol consumption, and crime are also “trademarks” of population-wide trauma.
“Our services in NSW, Queensland, and the ACT are already seeing the impacts of COVID-19,” he said. “For many young people we work with, their home is not happy or safe. As soon as restrictions are enforced, these young people are trapped in a frightening and traumatic situation.”
Palmer said this situation has heightened the risks for marginalised young people to disengage and turn to drugs or crime.
However, Palmer said the issue has opened a “golden opportunity” for governments to invest in the future health of Australians.
“Specialised drug, alcohol, and mental health treatment, especially at the early intervention level, are the most reliable and cost-effective means of turning young people’s lives around,” he said. “It’s far more expensive to wait for a young person to turn to crime, then send them to [prison].”
Palmer said the shortage of youth treatment services has resulted in long waiting lists and people needing to travel long distances to access support, which decrease the likelihood for a successful outcome.
According to Noffs’ data, participants in their treatment programs reported a 30% decrease in suicidal thoughts, 50% reduction in cannabis use, and 70% drop in methamphetamine use. There was also a 66% decline in crime involvement.
“Governments across Australia absolutely need to prioritise funding in this area, so that services like the Ted Noffs Foundation can continue to reach as many vulnerable young people as possible, before these problems get worse and spiral out of control,” Palmer said.
“Services like ours need the ongoing opportunity to provide programs that make a real difference and do our bit to help Australia recover from this pandemic,” he said.