Innovative mental health solutions emerge amid surge in demand for services

The wait times make Ben Vasiliou wince every time his Melbourne-based youth support service tries to refer a young person to a mental health specialist.

It’s normally a minimum of 10 to 12 weeks, and often twice that. One mental health service has a 10-month waiting list.

Youth Projects chief executive Ben Vasiliou (centre) says the long wait times for young people seeking mental health services make him wince.Credit:Jason South

The psychological impact of Victoria’s lockdowns on young people persists despite the easing of restrictions.

Mr Vasiliou, the chief executive of independent charity Youth Projects, said the average age of referrals to his service had dropped from between 19 and 21 to between 12 and 14 in the past six months.

“We receive referrals from schools and community organisations who identify kids at risk of social isolation, mental health problems, family violence and homelessness,” he said.

“Through youth workers, we then connect kids with mental health treatment plans, housing, family support and a training course or job if they’re ready. A lot of it is navigating complicated government services.”

As those offering primary care to young people in trouble, including psychologists, hospitals and large services such as not-for-profit Orygen, struggle to deliver timely care, Mr Vasiliou’s Youth Projects is an example of emerging support programs that are working alongside new apps and digital services to manage overwhelming demand.

Based in Glenroy in Melbourne’s north where they have supported 450 young people, Youth Projects expanded to Moreland six months ago and has been assisting 50 young people in the area.

Akwal Magek, 22, was working three jobs as an artist when the pandemic hit in March last year. Her work evaporated as restrictions tightened and within weeks she was forced to move out of her home. Without a stable roof over head, she dropped out of her youth work studies.

“I hated every second of it. It fed into my depression. I always had anxiety and it’s just become more severe as time’s gone by,” she said.

Orygen executive director Pat McGorry said his service was “absolutely swamped” with referrals.Credit:Chris Hopkins

Ms Magek said her case manager at Youth Projects would spend hours on the phone to Centrelink or enrolling her in a mental health treatment plan.

“I honestly don’t know where I’d be without another human there supporting me.”

Orygen executive director Pat McGorry said his service that links people aged 15 to 25 with GPs, psychologists and psychiatrists was “absolutely swamped” with more than 1000 on its waiting list.

The Victorian government announced plans on Tuesday to more than double the capacity of its program for young people experiencing mental crises, with new residential facilities in Ballarat, Geelong, Shepparton, Heidelberg and Traralgon allowing an extra 900 young people a year to receive support.

Professor McGorry welcomed the government’s intentions, but said its response to the mental health royal commission was being rolled out amid a 25 per cent increase in anxiety and depression worldwide.

“It’s like rebuilding in a hurricane,” he said.

To help ease the demand, Orygen has been connecting some of those on the waiting list with its Moderated Online Social Therapy (MOST) application – an example of crucial digital mental health services earmarked by the federal government.

Developed through 10 years of research and in consultation with psychologists, the mobile and computer app provides a direct link to professionals such as mental health clinicians and career consultants.

There are online therapy modules – if a user is feeling particularly anxious that day, for example, they can walk through steps to manage those emotions.

It also has a moderated social network, where young people can share tips and pose questions such as: “I’m invited to a Halloween party tonight – what are your tips for managing the crowds?”

Orygen digital associate director Jon Myer said MOST worked in tandem with face-to-face assistance and could play a role in every stage of someone’s mental health treatment plan, including while they were on a waiting list.

“That social support and knowing there are helpful, evidence-based resources can be integral as young people sometimes wait months,” he said.

“It also provides that 24/7 support while seeing a clinician face-to-face and when transitioning out of services. The fact the app is always accessible provides continuity across different points of the journey.”

Mr Myer said the NSW government planned to pilot MOST next year, identifying its value particularly in regional areas where face-to-face clinicians are often more sparse, while Queensland had also shown interest.

Moreland councillor Adam Pulford, whose council provided $50,000 to pilot Youth Projects in the area since July, said he was proud of the service.

“I know first-hand how hard and expensive it can be in our current system to access support for your mental health,” Cr Pulford said.

“It shouldn’t be this way, mental healthcare should be part of Medicare – free and accessible to everyone.”

The number of adults using digital services has also boomed. MindSpot Clinic offers a free online mental health assessment and treatment to those with depression, anxiety or substance use issues.

Founding director Nick Titov said 11,000 Victorians had used the program since the pandemic began in March last year, while nationwide he expected it to reach 30,000.

“Resuming our pre-COVID lives will take some time, and people can expect that although they will adapt to the new normal, the transition may trigger some stress,” he said.

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