I've seen first-hand the devastating effects poor mental health can have on an individual, their family, and their community. Working with young people day to day has made me realise how important it is to educate young people and their family members about mental health.

It's my wish to see every person in Australia trained in mental health first aid, particularly in rural and regional communities. It was one of the best things I ever did. For the first time, I saw grown men feeling confident enough to speak up about their concerns for themselves and their children.

With three in four of all life-time symptoms of mental-ill health emerging before 25, it should be mandatory to have teen mental health first aid training as part of the school curriculum.

Young people must be equipped with the tools and skills to understand resilience and mental health early on. So often I see young people wanting to help and make a difference to the lives of those in their community, but don't know how.

Imagine how many catastrophes could be prevented with these simple but life-changing initiatives. Young people are so passionate and motivated. They deserve more than what they're getting.

Regardless of your background, whether you identify as LGBTIQ+, in juvenile detention, culturally and linguistically diverse, mental ill-health is universal, and it should always be at the front of our minds when we start understanding ourselves and others in our communities.

Yet the stigma associated with mental ill-health in our rural towns is a massive barrier, holding communities back. 

Young people, particularly young men, can find it really challenging and can lack the confidence to see a GP, let alone a mental health professional.

I can see where their fear stems from. In these small country towns, it's difficult to walk down the one main street and not have 30 people you know see you. Where is the privacy in simply taking the first step to walk into a mental health clinic? It's tough when there might only be one or two degrees of separation, not six. However, if there was zero stigma attached to ill mental health, that fear might not be so debilitating.

This is particularly worrying within farming families, where the stigma and worry against mental health is contributing to the higher suicide rates. It shouldn't be this way. And it doesn't have to be.

As a young person who co-designed and facilitated community consultations for Youth Affairs Council Victoria (YACVic) on its submission to the Royal Commission into the Victorian Mental Health System: Beyond Access, which focused on mental health in rural and regional Victoria, I was thrilled that my knowledge and lived experience would have an amplified voice in this once-in-a-generational opportunity.

Given the massive contribution rural communities make to Australia's prosperity, why should those living in these areas have to sacrifice their mental health and well-being? Especially young people, when we are the future of these communities?

Heading into each consultation, I knew hearing young people's experiences would be heavy, but YACVic approached each consultation in a strengths-based and place-based way, ensuring young people and workers felt welcomed and safe.

One story which really stood out to me was a young person in Warrnambool who shared with us that as a person with a disability, they would go to their mental health worker and talk about their disability, be referred onto their NDIS worker, only for the NDIS worker to refer the young person back to the mental health worker when they spoke about their mental health. It was a vicious cycle which meant this young person didn't get help they needed.

The lack of communication and collaboration between different service agencies that deal with mental health and related issues such as drugs, alcohol, domestic and family violence, homelessness etc. is disappointing and all too familiar.

Despite these stories, I feel hopeful about the change young people are pushing to make happen. They're the ones starting conversations with friends and family, calling for more funding for services in the "missing middle" and driving place-based solutions. Young people, particularly with lived experience of mental ill-health, are the experts. YACVic and other local groups are empowering these young people to be community change-makers.

As the Royal Commission into the Victorian Mental Health System continues, it only makes sense to include young people in decisions that are relevant to them. If the mental health system is going to change in Victoria, we need to ensure that it is relatable to young people from all walks of life.

One day, I hope our communities can smash the stigma. I want everyone in small communities to feel comfortable enough to seek help. I want everybody to feel that a conversation about mental health with family, friends and others is normal.

Jennifer Rowan is a youth projects officer for Corangamite Shire, and a mental health co-designer and facilitator for Youth Affairs Council Victoria

Read YACVic's report on youth mental health in rural and regional Victoria here

This article was originally published across Victoria by Australian Community Media on 20 July and has been republished with permission.