The Australian, October 8
By Julia Gillard
Which career would I have chosen if not the law, followed by politics? I’ve been asked that many times over the years, and the answer is simple: teaching.
The importance of a quality education was instilled in me from a young age.
I recall the sense of loss my father felt at being forced by his family’s poverty to leave school at 14.
He emphasised to me that every day of education was a privilege to be cherished.
Besides, I enjoyed going to school — the learning, the playmates and, of course, the teachers. I respected them.
Growing up, I became passionate about shaping young minds and getting young people to love learning. In fact, that was the motivating ideal that led me into politics.
It shaped my purpose and priorities as prime minister and continues to drive me in the causes I champion post-politics.
Now, as chair of Beyond Blue, I understand how important a strong social and emotional foundation is to academic achievement.
So, as Mental Health Week 2018 kicks off, let’s focus on the wellbeing of young Australians, from toddlers in early learning services to 18-year-olds on the cusp of their great transitions out of school and into the workforce or further education.
Today’s young people have a higher level of understanding of good mental health and wellbeing than any other generation, but that does not mean everything’s fine.
The up-and-coming generation is experiencing different pressures than earlier generations, including the impacts, both good and bad, of social media and spending a lot of life online.
Four years ago, Young Minds Matter — the latest and largest national study of its kind — found that every year about one in seven Australians between four and 17 experiences a mental health condition.
We already know that half of all adult mental health conditions emerge by the age of 14.
If left untreated, these illnesses can dramatically reduce a young person’s chances of leading a happy, healthy, productive life.
Tragically, suicide accounted for more than one-third of deaths among people aged 15-24 in Australia last year.
Now new research from the mental health organisation Headspace shows psychological distress in 12 to 25-year-olds increased threefold in a decade.
But by supporting mental health from an early age, there’s potential to both enhance young people’s learning opportunities and their long-term prospects.
This in turn can be a factor in improving education outcomes.
To that end, a major effort is under way to support the mental health of our young people.
It will be based on a simple premise: prevention is better than cure.
Next month, after engagement with thousands of stakeholders from educators, parents and young people to service providers, peak bodies and unions, researchers and governments, Beyond Blue — in partnership with Early Childhood Australia and Headspace — will launch an initiative with the aim of equipping children from the get-go with the social and emotional skills necessary to take them successfully through school and beyond.
We are grateful to the Commonwealth Government for funding this vital work.
Every early learning service and school can be involved in and benefit from this free service.
It will give our magnificent early learning service staff and teachers the how-to — the very practical steps needed — to promote mental health and resilience, and to identify kids who need more help and get them appropriate support.
Importantly, this will also be the how-to for educators about the best ways of supporting their own mental health and wellbeing, because when educators are at their best, so too are our children and young people.
Online professional development, accompanied by the tips, tools and evidence-based resources, will be provided in tandem with the support of a highly experienced team of more than 70 staff nationally.
This isn’t about giving educators yet another thing to do. It’s about linking them to proven programs to address the challenges they face daily.
Rather than struggling to work out what to do about bullying, or how to most effectively reach out to a troubled young person, or how to promote mental health across their school community, help and resources will be a click, an email or a phone call away.
This Beyond Blue education initiative will be part of a child’s learning journey from the moment they enter an early learning service until the end of Year 12.
And it will be accessible to everybody. Parents, carers, whole communities will be able to access the site and, along the way, improve their own mental health literacy.
If we can improve the mental health of Australia’s children, they will be more likely to emerge into adulthood with the tools they need to be resilient in the face of life’s challenges.
Improved mental health is also important to achieving goals such as increased school attendance and retention, higher academic outcomes, better engagement in the classroom and the life of the school, as well as improved youth employment rates.
This is about backing early learning service staff and teachers to better support our young people.
But we are also aware how huge the challenge is and how much work lies ahead.
Like everything we do at Beyond Blue, we know that community support — your support — will be vital to getting this right and getting it done.
Working together, we can aim high.
Our shared goal should be to produce the most mentally healthy generation of young Australians ever.