10 October marks World Mental Health Day, a great opportunity to have conversations about how every young person deserves access to appropriate and supportive services, at any stage of their mental health journey.
Did you know that youth workers are qualified to provide mental health support? They can be found in many places, from council youth services or schools!
I spoke to youth worker Heather Ryan (she/they) about their experience in this space, what they do and how youth workers can help you be in charge of your own mental health journey.
What is your role like as a youth worker?
I’ve been a youth worker for nearly 20 years and I love it! Youth workers support young people in lots of ways, in all different kinds of settings. My current role is managing the Human Rights Advocacy Service at YDAS. Before this, I coordinated programs and supports for LGBTIQA+ young people and for a long time I worked in youth mental health.
Basically, a youth worker’s role is to support young people in ways which are led by and meaningful to the young people they work with. Our role is to be an active ally to young people, support and listen to them, help them make their voice heard and have their rights upheld.
Youth workers can help young people work through problems, towards their goals or get the support they need. This might be at a local youth centre or service, schools or sometimes outreach to other places in the community too. Youth workers specialise in supporting people aged 12-25, so they understand the issues young people are dealing with, especially common ones like mental health.
Why do you think it's important for young people to have access to youth workers providing mental health support?
This is something I’m really passionate about, so bear with me a little while I explain. Mental health support usually involves two main parts, which are both really important.
One is ‘clinical’ support, which is the mental health care provided by healthcare professionals like GPs, psychologists, allied health or psychiatrists, and typically involves things like diagnosis, medication or evidence-based therapies and counselling. Accessing this kind of mental health support is crucial for those who need it, just like any type of health issue.
The other is known as ‘psychosocial’ support, which is basically all the other stuff in our lives that can either help or hinder our mental health and wellbeing. ‘Psychosocial’ refers to all kinds of things, like family, home, relationships, socialising, education, work, community, friends and so on. As we know, our mental health doesn’t exist in a bubble – it’s connected to all these things too. Research tells us that addressing issues we may be having with ‘psychosocial’ stuff is really important for preventing, treating and recovering from mental health conditions and maintaining our mental health and wellbeing.
This is where youth workers come in! Youth workers can provide mental health support in this ‘psychosocial’ category. We can connect you with supports, programs or services in your community which can help improve some of the ‘life stuff’ which could be impacting your mental health. We can listen to you, help you figure out your options and assist you to solve problems.
Youth workers can also link you with opportunities that are good for your mental health, that match your unique strengths and interests. This could be finding you inclusive social spaces, or doing things you enjoy like art, cooking, music or gaming in a safe, non-judgmental and fun environment.
But best of all, youth workers are great people to talk to about what’s happening in your life, how you’re feeling and help you find your way through. Youth workers are there to be non-judgmental, be in your corner and will support you in a youth-friendly way. Research shows that having someone you can trust to talk things through with can make a huge difference to our mental health and help us get through tough times.
How can youth workers provide more immediate mental health support than other clinical pathways?
OK safety first, so let’s clarify that word ‘immediate’ – if you (or someone else) is at immediate risk of harm or you’re worried you may harm yourself or someone else, call 000 or the psych triage in your local area. That’s not for youth workers or counselling waitlists or anyone else – that’s a mental health emergency.
If it’s not an emergency or a crisis, read on.
There is a really high demand for clinical mental health support, which can mean waiting what feels like ages before we get to access it. In the meantime, you can speak to youth workers for more immediate psychosocial support. While we are not a replacement for clinical mental health support, we can be an excellent, understanding and confidential support for you.
Youth workers have usually done mental health training such as Youth Mental Health First Aid and know how to respond if your mental health is getting worse. We can give you mental health information and make referrals to other services if you need them.
Most local government areas in Victoria have a ‘youth services’ team, staffed by youth workers. If you google the name of your local council and ‘youth services’, you should find their contact details. You can usually contact them during business or after-school hours, but they’re not all hours crisis services.
They often have drop-in sessions so you can chat with someone, or they might visit schools or run local youth events. Some schools have youth workers as part of the student wellbeing team.
How does confidentiality work for mental health support?
As a general rule, what you share with a youth worker (or any type of mental health support) is confidential. This means they can’t tell anyone else what you’ve told them without your consent, except if you share something that means they believe that you or someone else is at risk of serious harm. There are laws about this, and they can be a bit different depending on the setting you’re in or the professional you’re talking to.
Anyone providing you with clinical or psychosocial mental health support should explain any exceptions to confidentiality with you at the start of that first conversation. If they don’t, ask them to as you have a right to know this. It’s also ok to ask about it again at another time or request more information to help you understand.
This is especially important if you’re talking to a youth worker, GP, nurse, counsellor, or wellbeing support person at your school. Sometimes, there are different rules about what each of these people can or can’t share and who they can share it with. This is usually about keeping you and other people safe.
Sometimes, they might be legally allowed (or required) to tell your parents/carers or other services about something you’ve told them. It’s important that they clearly explain the confidentiality rules they follow to you at the start. If they do have to tell someone else about something, they should talk that through with you, explain why and it should still only ever be on a ‘need to know’ basis.
What changes do you want to see within this space?
I think it would be great for young people if youth workers were more accessible across the board. We need more youth workers in schools, TAFES, universities, community centres, disability services and especially in youth mental health services.
Youth workers are able to support the mental health of young people in a way clinical professionals cannot, especially when it comes to prevention and recovery. We can run mental health group programs, build supportive relationships with young people and work outside of consulting rooms. We can be the connection between school and the services young people need. Like peer workers, youth workers can bring a whole lot of value to mental health support for young people, which compliments the clinical support.
Young people experiencing mental ill-health deserve access to all evidence-based supports, both clinical and psychosocial, and that includes youth work.
In an emergency, please call 000 immediately or the psych triage in your area.
Lifeline - 13 11 24, available 24 hours a day.
Use this page to find mental health services, professional support, community groups and resources that are culturally appropriate for you.
Search thousands of psychologists in A medical centre where you have to pay to see a doctor. If you have Medicare, this will pay for some of the cost but there will also be a ‘gap’ for you to pay.private practice.
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This website can help you find nearby crisis services providing counselling, money help, housing, food and more.