How these fearless women are tackling Canberra’s teenage mental health crisis

Canberra is widely known as Australia’s wealthiest city, but scratch the surface and there’s a disturbing mental health crisis among teenagers.

The ACT has Australia’s highest rates of mental illness among adolescents, with a survey by Mission Australia and the Black Dog Institute finding that 33 per cent of 15-19 year olds met the criteria for serious mental illness, compared to an average national by 23%.

The situation of adolescent girls is particularly bad, with more than 40% of them suffering from great psychological distress and girls aged 15 to 19 identified as the group most at risk of mental illness.

These are statistics that Rania Yallop knows firsthand.

Ms Yallop comes from a loving home but sank into depression in high school, describing herself as ‘rebellious, delinquent’ and ‘difficult’.

“Everything was overwhelming, I didn’t know how to do anything,” Ms Yallop said.

Ms Yallop said that just before her 14th birthday she had attempted suicide for the first time.

She knows she is not alone in this experience.

“I don’t think it’s uncommon for 13- or 14-year-olds to go through really serious issues,” she said.

“They’ll say they have a stomach ache, but you know it’s probably anxiety”

Dance teacher Julie Sheer says early intervention services are needed now more than ever.(ABC News: Craig Allen)

Canberra School of Dance owner Julie Scheer says she has also noticed a worrying trend of deteriorating mental health among her teenage pupils.

“You can just see that they’re starting to look like they’re withdrawing and they’re in a bad mood,” Ms Scheer said.

“A lot of times they say ‘I have a stomach ache’ or something like that, but you know it’s probably anxiety.

But why does Canberra, with its standard of living and average weekly wage among the best in the country, have such a high rate of teenage mental illness?

A study by the Australian National University found that the ACT university system, lack of diversity in local career options, and pressure from high-achieving professional parents all contributed to stressors for teenagers in Canberra.

Glenda Stevens, CEO of fearless womensaid the city’s largely professional workforce and pressure to meet community expectations could fuel a “fear of failure” among girls, which could escalate into mental health issues.

“Girls are very hard on themselves, they demand they be perfect,” Ms Stevens said.

“There’s a feeling that they should aim to go to college and get a job in the civil service.”

Ms Stevens said Canberra’s transient population also meant that many young women lacked traditional family support networks – which is where her charity comes in.

Early intervention is the key

Fearless Women is a grassroots organization that seeks to build confidence and resilience among girls and young women in the Canberra area.

Like Menslink, which has been providing school-based counselling, mentoring and education programs for boys and young men for 20 years, Fearless Women aims to offer early intervention and support services to girls. .

Portrait of a woman with gray hair and a purple shirt
Glenda Stevens is the CEO of Fearless Women, a nonprofit early intervention organization.(Provided)

The charity focuses on short-term counselling, long-term mentoring and visits schools in Canberra to talk to teenagers about the issues they face.

“Women Without Fear aims to help women between the ages of 10 and 25 grow and become the best person they can be, the best version of themselves,” Ms Stevens said.

A decade after that first suicide attempt, now working as a media professional, Ms Yallop said she realizes how essential early intervention is.

“Especially when you’re a teenager, like I love my mom to death, but…I [didn’t] want to talk to him about anything,” she said.

“Having an early intervention service that can meet those demands and be in a place to go is a good idea.

A young woman holding her face in her hands, while someone comforts her.
Ms Yallop says an early intervention service that can meet demand is welcome.(Pexels: Polina Zimmermann)

Ms Scheer said the COVID-19 pandemic has also exacerbated problems for teenage girls, and she also welcomes the introduction of Fearless Women programs.

“Over the past 17 years, I’ve watched so many young women who I think would really benefit from this initiative,” Ms. Scheer said.

“I see the need. I really see it. It’s clear. It was clear to me before COVID, I already thought it was essential, but especially now after COVID.

To date, Fearless Women has been privately funded, but the organization is seeking government support to roll out its services across ACT.

The charity is also calling on women to come forward and sign up to become mentors for a two-year period.

“We actually want the girls to be bold and strong, and to find their way in the world without fear,” Ms Stevens said.

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