We need to talk about youth depression

August 17, 2015
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This story is part of Hijacked's longform series where Team Hijacked journalists delve deep into the issues that matter most to Australia's student population.

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We’ve all been told the same thing countless times: “Your university years are the best years of your life.” We were painted a picture of an exciting world of independence, new friends, social events and stimulating subjects. For many, this depiction becomes a reality. For one in 16 young Australians, however, it’s an illusion clouded by a haze of depression.

Depression is one of the most common health issues among Australian youths, and its incidence is increasing. University students are particularly affected by the condition, and this is often due to a number of pressures they face.

Clinical psychologist Emma Pinn notes that the drastic shift from the comfort of high school to a whole new learning and social environment is a common trigger for the onset of depression among university students.

“Leaving the school environment and being away from that close-knit community, [and entering] into a setting where they know few people, can lead to uni students feeling stressed and alone,” she says.

“There’s also the challenge of balancing multiple pressures, whether it’s living at home and balancing parental expectations with the desire for autonomy, or moving out but having to balance work in order to support oneself and study.”

Emma highlights the fact that the human mind doesn’t fully mature until we’re around 24 years old, making young students especially vulnerable to mental illness. This existing vulnerability accentuates the common challenges that students face in navigating daily life, sometimes resulting in the ‘black dog’.

Dr Stephen Carbone, the Policy, Research and Evaluation Leader for beyondblue, agrees, adding that some students may be more susceptible to depression than others.

“International students might be a little bit more vulnerable, as they are dealing with a huge transition and may not have a big support network around them. LGBTI students may not have immediate access to the types of services that are specific to their needs,” he says. “Tackling any health condition really depends on one’s circumstances.”

I’ve had numerous panic attacks in lecture theatres ... I feel like everything is caving in and there’s nothing I can do. I’ve got the world crumbling in on me and I can’t breathe.

While mental illness is common, it’s often not immediately identifiable in those who are suffering it - a cheerful facade may hide the painful emotions being experienced on the inside. This is the case for Meredith Jones, a law student at La Trobe University. She’s suffered from anxiety throughout her entire life, and knows too well the struggle of quietly dealing with a mentally - and sometimes physically - debilitating condition.

“I’ve had numerous panic attacks in lecture theatres where I’ve suddenly realised the expectations of the lecturers,” she says. “I feel like everything is caving in and there’s nothing I can do. I’ve got the world crumbling in on me and I can’t breathe.”

In these frightening situations, the pain is completely internal and no one is aware of what Meredith is experiencing. It’s this lack of awareness, caused by the ‘invisibility’ of mental illness, which can sometimes perpetuate a culture of ignorance. Because mental health conditions such as anxiety and depression are not as immediately fathomable as physical health problems, their seriousness is often underestimated.

“There have been people who’ve told me to pull myself together or ‘get with it’, [or] ‘you’ll be fine’,” says Meredith. “That wasn’t what I needed to hear; that’s the worst thing you can say.”

Emma reinforces that this attitude can only worsen one’s mental health. “There is still an association between mental illness and ‘weakness’,” she says. “The idea still exists that if someone would just ‘toughen up’, then they wouldn’t be depressed. This often leads to self-criticism in an attempt to improve one’s mindset, which only leads to more depression.”

Although we’ve come a long way from the One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest approach to mental illness, there is still a way to go in reducing the stigma that nevertheless exists.

When people talk to people with depression, they realise that they’re just an average person who has happened to become unwell with this condition.

Dr Carbone asserts that this process needs to start with a conversation. “The more we talk about it and the more we challenge those myths and misperceptions, the better,” he says. “When people talk to people with depression, they realise that they’re just an average person who has happened to become unwell with this condition.”

With research showing that nearly half the population will experience a mental disorder at some point in their lives, it’s essential that we approach this issue with an open mind and a desire to share our own – and others’ – experience.

Meredith is using her personal experience to assist others dealing with mental illness. As a volunteer speaker for beyondblue, she aims to spread awareness of depression and anxiety, particularly among young people. “If we get a discussion going, the next group of people who have to deal with those challenges are going to be better equipped from the beginning,” she says.

Ultimately, she says it comes down to a sense of understanding. “People need to be more open to listen, and less inclined to make a judgement.”

Students who’ve been visited by the unwelcome ‘black dog’ need to understand that they are not alone and that help is available. Dr Carbone notes that a major problem with the stigma surrounding depression is that it can cause people to be self-conscious and reluctant to seek help. But treatment is a significant part of recovering from depression, and there are various types of treatment available that work differently for each individual.  

It’s OK. There is hope. It won’t last forever and it will get better.

And with the concern for mental health constantly growing in Australia, new ways of treating mental illness are emerging, such as internet-delivered treatment programs that make it easier and cheaper to get help. But overall it’s important that young people experiencing depression speak out and obtain the assistance they need.  

Thankfully, the very institutions we attend also acknowledge this, and provide various wellbeing services to help us cope and overcome the mental health challenges we may face.

Meredith accessed valuable help from a psychologist on campus. “I basically talked about my concerns; what was going on with me,” she says. “They had the mentality of wanting to talk through those issues so my mental state would be less burdened. They helped me get through that with cognitive therapy, which is the training of the mind to reverse negative bias and promote positive thought processes.”

Meredith is still recovering from anxiety, but has been given the tools she needs to deal with it and to see the light at the end of the tunnel. She has a final piece of advice for young people in her position.

“It’s OK. There is hope. It won’t last forever and it will get better.”  

Aobh O’Brien-Moody

Aobh studies journalism at UNSW, eats too much ice cream and is half Irish in case you couldn’t tell. She tweets at @Aobh_OBM.

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