By CALLAN NORMAN
The room is nearly oppressively green, but there is a playfulness to the strikingly bright wall that fronts the centre.
This place is designed to provide help for one of the most sinister and debilitating challenges facing society today, and yet nothing about it feels like a clinic. There’s a help desk, and some waiting chairs, but they aren’t old and worn; they look almost like they belong in a play-centre, blue, green and yellow dotting the room.
Music quietly bops, and chipper voices and phones sound more like a lively office than a practice. The sickly smell of disinfectant is absent, replaced by nothing distinct, except for the warm aroma of freshly printed paper.
The staff match the colourful décor: mostly young, some dressed in the same bright green, all unfailingly friendly. It is difficult to imagine a more hospitable place. This all indicates one thing: this Headspace centre, designed to make youths who need help with mental health feel welcome and comfortable, is doing its job.
What’s also striking is how far it is from the Monash area, for those who really need it.
For many young people in the city of Monash, mental health is not the abstract issue it is often made out to be. An investigation conducted by Resilient Youth Australia this year studied more than 9600 Monash students, and found just over 15 per cent suffered an acute mental illness.
More than a third were constantly under strain, depleted, or depressed, and more than 60 per cent were found to have minimal or borderline positive thoughts about themselves. A national 2016 survey by Mission Australia reflected similar findings, suggesting nearly half of the Australian young people studied were under what was considered to be an irregular amount of stress or anxiety.
To combat these issues a decade ago, the Coalition Government established the National Youth Mental Health Foundation – the organisation which would later come to be known as Headspace.
With more than 100 centres across Australia, Headspace provides mental health assistance and early intervention services to more than 100,000 12-25 year olds a year, aiming to tackle depression, anxiety, and stress.
Their work includes this immediate support, as well as introducing initiatives to help youths fight mental illness. Their crucial service continues to grow, with the Federal Government announcing funding for 10 new centres across Australia earlier this year.
Despite heavy campaigning, a Monash centre was not among them.
Tristan Danino is just 20 years old, a friendly and engaging second-year student at RMIT University who calls Monash home. One of many young Australians who have quietly battled some form of mental illness, he is familiar with Headspace and similar services, and how far help can seem from home.
While the drive from Monash to a Headspace centre in Dandenong or Knox might not seem overly long, for those seeking immediate assistance, Danino says the distance can feel “like an ocean”.
“I certainly feel there are not enough resources for us, especially given the sheer number of youths who suffer from mental health issues,” Danino says. “Waiting periods of months on end are not unheard of, and totally inadequate given the time-sensitive nature of mental health.”
In 2015, Headspace was criticised in a government review for being “too centralised”. They have adapted accordingly, creating more than 20 new centres since, with then CEO Chris Tanti labelling accessibility to their services the greatest challenge young people faced. Tanti stepped down from his position as CEO last year, citing frustration with the government’s “bizarre” decision to stop funding Headspace directly.
“I don’t think MPs understand the extent to which the organisation and its quality is potentially at risk,” he said then.
Danino agrees, insisting it is not Headspace that are the issue, but Parliament, which needs to re-evaluate its priorities on mental health. “Treat mental illness as one would treat physical illness – with decency, urgency, and respect for the sufferer.”
Heather Staveley, associate director at Orygen, one of the world’s leading organisations for youth mental health support, suggests the issue is more complex – and pressing – than many understand.
“To be fair to the government, Headspace continues to grow nationally,” she says. “The problem is that Monash needs [a Headspace centre]. We have a high proportion of young people in schools and universities, and we need to keep advocating so they can all have access to support if they need it.”
Staveley has worked with Orygen since 1992. Not too long ago, she was on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week, ready to be called into action to provide immediate support for young people battling mental illness.
Today, her work regularly takes her across the globe, spearheading global mental health initiatives at conferences in places such as London, Los Angeles and Tokyo.
“I had 14 meetings and a full day workshop for my week in London this year,” she says. Most would baulk at the prospect, but Staveley’s eyes light up as she talks at length about solutions to the issues facing Australia’s youth, a veritable encyclopaedia on the subject.
“It’s tough,” she concedes. “But fantastic.”
She works closely with Headspace, and has a great deal of respect for them. “Half of my job is working with Headspace. I work nationally with six centres. I still work with Pat McGorry, one of the original advocates for Headspace, a director on their board: he received Australian of the Year in 2010 for his work in youth mental health.”
Asked if the Federal Government is to blame for the inadequacies in Monash’s support system, she is reluctant to lay the blame at anyone’s feet. “Mental health services have been poorly funded for years, particularly by states,” she says.
“The Commonwealth is directing some funding to youth mental health, and both Liberal and Labor publicly support it, but it’s not enough. (They) need to be continually pushed.”
Staveley is adamant a new Headspace centre is a viable solution that could “truly help” Monash youth.
“To get specialist care or into the public mental health system quickly you basically have to be floridly psychotic, homicidal, or about to commit suicide. That’s true in Monash, and that’s why Headspace is so important – people need to easily access help. The results are there in the existing centres.”
Knox MP Alan Tudge, who successfully campaigned for a Headspace centre, agrees, saying he is “very proud” of their work.
“Four years later, over 4000 young people have benefited from Headspace. The centre is changing lives every single day,” he says. “This shows how desperately needed it was for young people.”
Danino agrees. “I felt like a totally broken or malfunctioning person. That’s why help, immediate help, is so important.”
That help still seems to be a distance away. Monash Mayor Rebecca Paterson said earlier this year it was “time to move on” from waiting for federal funding, and that Monash would instead work to create its own “dedicated mental health service for young people”.
“It won’t be a Headspace, but it will be our space, for our youth,” she said. “(Youths) need to be able to access quality mental health services close to home.”
Link Health and Community chairperson Felicity Smith says they “wouldn’t turn our backs on young people in Monash”, and that plans for a facility would go ahead “with or without Headspace”.
Stavely says this is the right course, but does not think they should abandon plans for a Headspace centre altogether.
“Monash should do both. This shouldn’t be an either/or situation,” she says. “Set up Monash’s own space, because we cannot wait for Headspace funding, and youth needs must be met now, not when it suits, but continue pursuing Headspace too.”
She says the proposed space could both help young people and demonstrate the need for Monash’s own Headspace. “Even go a step further and open the new centre, then integrate it with Headspace later. Youth mental health shouldn’t be a competition. It should be a united front.”
Government representatives did not respond for comment. In February, Health Minister Greg Hunt said he was “committed to ensuring mental health gets the care it needs”.
Heather Staveley shrugs, and offers a small but hopeful smile.
“I’ve been doing this for decades now, literally. We’ve made big strides all over the world. Now it’s time to bring one home.”