Youth Affairs Council Victoria (YACVic), the state peak body for young people, welcomes the Victorian Government’s announcement of substantial new investment in mental health workers for Victoria’s state secondary schools.

A new Mental Health in Schools program will employ over 190 mental health professionals, such as counsellors, youth workers or psychologists. The Victorian Government has undertaken that every state secondary school will receive between one and five days a week of support from a mental health professional, depending on their enrolment numbers. This is a powerful step forward, and a recognition of the importance of ensuring a good standard of wellbeing for every student.

YACVic has long campaigned for stronger mental health supports in our schools. In #vicyouth2020, our action plan for building the best community for young Victorians, one of the key goals is: "All schools support students to enjoy good mental health and recover from mental illness." We highlighted the need for secondary-aged students to have adequate access to wellbeing supports; we also encouraged stronger clinical supports for school wellbeing teams and greater mental health literacy across school communities. We’re also pleased to see the unique role and value of youth workers acknowledged in this announcement, which responds to our Youth Work Matters campaign call for an increase in trained, supported youth workers in Victorian schools.  

Young people are leading the way in breaking down stigma about mental illness and encouraging each other to ask for help. But some communities simply don’t have health services that all young people can access, and not every school has the staff and resources to cope with their students’ wellbeing needs. This is concerning, as nearly one in five young Victorians report concerns about depression, and a third describe feeling concerned about their body image. One in ten young Australians have self-harmed. These numbers are often much greater for specific groups, such as young people who are Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander, young people from refugee and migrant backgrounds, young women, and young people who are Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender Intersex and Queer + (LGBTIQ+),  who often benefit from peer based interventions which are provided in culturally appropriate manner.

The Government will also partner with Orygen National Centre of Excellence in Youth Mental Health to promote student wellbeing within secondary schools. Schools will gain access to expert advice online through a central web portal, which will assist school staff to create mental health support plans for students, and advise schools on how to work with community and health services. This is another excellent development as YACVic, and our partner agency, Victorian Student Representative Council, the peak body for school-aged students, have both advocated for additional, coordinated wellbeing supports in schools.

As the Mental Health in Schools program takes shape, YACVic calls upon the Victorian Government to engage closely with rural, regional and interface communities about the program’s design, outcomes and reporting. Rural communities, in particular, often struggle with geographical isolation and scarce availability of health services in the local area. This can mean that schools are under particular pressure to support their students’ wellbeing. As such, we suggest that investment in mental health staff should not be determined by enrolment numbers alone, but should also take into account the proportional need in the local community and the demands placed on schools where few external services exist.  

We also urge that the Mental Health in Schools program provide appropriate supports to students in alternative and flexible learning settings, in light of the relatively high levels of vulnerability and distress that many have experienced.

The Andrews Government's additional pledge to hold a royal commission into mental health if re-elected is also very welcome. YACVic has raised a number of concerns about young people's access to timely, appropriate mental health services. Major problems include service systems that are difficult for young people to navigate, major difficulties accessing mental health services in rural, regional and interface communities (the risk of suicide often rises with geographical isolation), and services which are not always accessible or appropriate for young people from culturally diverse backgrounds, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander young people, and young people who are LGBTIQ+. A royal commission would provide a powerful opportunity to introduce positive changes in this space.