School-based health promotion intervention reduces stigma and encourages adolescents to seek professional help for mental illness

As students prepare to return to the classroom, the effects of months of isolation, lack of peer contact and limited access to usual support systems, has seen an increase in the number of those experiencing anxiety and mental health issues.  

There have also been concerns raised about an impending youth mental health crisis, with recent modelling suggesting the COVID-19 pandemic will contribute to a major surge in suicides among young people.  

It is therefore critical that school students know how and where to receive mental health support when they need it. However, fewer than one in four 16–24-year-olds with a current mental health disorder access health services. Rather than seeking professional help, research indicates that young people are keeping their problems to themselves or turning to their peers for help.

In a world-first, a school-based innovative health promotion intervention, ‘MAKINGtheLINK’, has shown to be effective in teaching adolescents how to seek help from health professionals for mental health and substance use problems, as well as reducing stigmatising attitudes among peers. 

The intervention focuses on exploring the barriers to seeking help, including perceived stigma and embarrassment, difficulty recognising symptoms and a preference for self-reliance. It also focuses on teaching students the skills to overcome these barriers, support their peers and encourage professional help-seeking. 

Director of Turning Point and the Monash Addiction Research Centre (MARC), Professor Dan Lubman, led the development of MAKINGtheLINK, and said given many young people experiencing mental illness don’t access health services, the findings highlight the importance of MAKINGtheLINK in addressing low rates of formal help-seeking among adolescents.

“Equipping adolescents with the knowledge and skills to support themselves and their peers is crucial given mental illness is so widespread, and even more so now because of the COVID-19 global health crisis. Even in a post COVID-19 world, it is not yet known what the implications will be to the mental health of adolescents, and looking out for each other will be vital,” he said.

“MAKINGtheLINK has the potential to make a meaningful contribution to existing early intervention and prevention efforts, through improving the mental health literacy and confidence of young people to overcome obstacles to seeking professional help.

“It is important that young people who are experiencing mental health problems seek prompt help from health professionals to prevent the long-term negative outcomes of mental illness.”

Professor Lubman said the overall findings of the studies highlight the value of providing skills-based wellbeing programs to young people within the school setting, and indicate that MAKINGtheLINK makes a substantial impact to existing early intervention and prevention efforts. 

“Implementing MAKINGtheLINK in secondary schools across the nation provides an opportunity to respond to the breadth of adolescent mental health issues and youth suicide in our community, by providing an evidence-based intervention that equips young people with the skills and confidence to seek out timely, quality help,” he said.

The trials were funded by a grant from the National Health and Medical Research Council. 

For more information about Turning Point, please visit: turningpoint.org.au.

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