One of the most interesting and perhaps most important points that emerged from the Youth Injuries panel session at the recent Summit was the importance of involving young people when it comes to decision making and communicating about the issues that directly affect their mental and physical health.
The session moderator, Darci Miller, of Mentally Healthy WA and currently in her 20s, said she found it interesting to hear panel members, and later those in the audience, discussing the major issues facing young people today and urged them all to involve young people in the conversation at every level and opportunity.
Panel members included Greg Williams from the Alcohol and Drug Foundation (ADF), Chris Harris from Youth Focus, Greg Stratton from Balga Senior High School and Lauren Nimmo from Royal Life Saving Society WA (RLSSWA), all of whom work with and advocate on behalf of young people. Each of the panel members spoke in turn about the issues they deal with as an organisation and about what they believe are the major issues currently facing young people with regards to injury prevention.
The overwhelming consensus was, that although drugs are an issue for some members of this group, alcohol remains the major factor contributing to risky behaviours and injury in young people. In addition, youth suicide rates were identified as an ongoing area of concern, particularly among young men in the 18-24 year age bracket.
Greg Stratton spoke about Balga Senior High School’s long term emphasis on the overall outcomes of its students, both in terms of academic achievement and health and wellbeing outcomes, which he said often put it at odds with the WA State school system. He said the school always tries to look outside the box when it comes to engaging young people, using methods such as using film and theatre, as well as exploring opportunities to work at a more complex level with community groups, not-for-profits, police and other groups to break down barriers of trust and produce better outcomes for students.
RLSSWA’s Lauren Nimmo identified alcohol as the biggest threat to young people’s safety around water and said it was a factor in 30-40% of deaths in this age group. She said combining alcohol and water could not only cause drowning but also spinal cord and acquired brain injuries. One of the biggest challenges identified by RLSSWA in reaching their target market was communicating authentically with young people in a meaningful way. “We don’t tell them not to drink but to do so responsibly and safely however half the battle is keeping up with the sheer pace of change and technology with this generation,” Ms Nimmo said.
Greg Williams from the ADF also identified alcohol as the most problematic issue his organisation currently faced with respect to young people and said one of the major challenges they face is the normalisation of alcohol consumption and binge drinking n Australian society. He said alcohol consumption and sales was tied into Australian sporting club culture with clubs often very resistant to change, fearing revenue loss, and that this filtered down from the elite to the grass roots level.
Chris Harris from the youth mental health organisation, Youth Focus, said it is still stigmatising to identify as a non-drinker in Australia where it was seemingly far more accepted in European countries, for example. He spoke about the need to “rebrand” mental health to give it a better image for young people. “It would be great it if it was not identified as a weakness or a problem and that focusing on issues surrounding the mental health of young people could be seen as building strength instead,” he said.
All agreed that while social media could be incredibly powerful in communicating with this generation, its downsides were significant in terms of 24/7 access and the prevalence of cyber bullying.
Panel and audience members identified the difficulties in engaging young people in issues that affected them and that it was far more authentic and successful when young people delivered injury prevention messages to other young people through peer education, rather than hearing it from the older generation.
The overall messages were about empowering young people and to give them a voice in solutions to the issues they were facing and that short, sharp messaging using social media and video is amongst the most effective ways to reach this generation.