Mental health program reduces suicidal thoughts in students

The Youth Aware of Mental Health program has been given the thumbs up by the Black Dog Institute, writes Poppy Diamantis.

Image: Year 10 students from Asquith Girls High School discuss their experiences of the Youth Aware of Mental Health program with Head Teacher Wellbeing Mel Farrugia.

A program undertaken by public high schools across NSW has proven successful in reducing the presence of suicidal thoughts or behaviour in students, aged 13-16 years, a study by Black Dog Institute has shown.

Partnering with the NSW Department of Education, the Youth Aware of Mental Health (YAM) program, was evaluated by Black Dog Institute in 18 high schools across NSW between September 2017 and March 2020.

YAM involves young people participating in group discussions and role-plays, where they learn about and discuss everyday mental health issues and explore different strategies to improve problem-solving skills, emotional functioning and help-seeking behaviours when facing challenging real-life situations.

Dr Lauren McGillivray, Post-Doctoral Researcher at the Black Dog Institute, who oversaw the review of the YAM program, said questionnaires were given to participating students before they received the YAM program and at three and six months afterwards, to look at changes in their mental health.

“We found that students reported reduced presence of suicidal ideation, less severe depression symptoms, and were more likely to seek help for a personal or emotional problem after receiving the program,” Dr McGillivray said.

“There is an increasing trend in the rates of intentional self-harm and suicidal ideation amongst young people across Australia, both of which heighten the risk of suicide death in this age group, and represent important suicide-prevention targets.”

“In spite of these increasing trends, there are few evidence-based programs for suicide prevention available to Australian young people. Our research showed that students reported less severe suicidal thoughts three and six months after completing the YAM program compared to before, and that more than one-fifth of students who reported suicidal thoughts before the program started went on to report no suicidal thoughts at six months after participating in the program,” Dr McGillivray said.

The research concluded that YAM is a promising mental health and suicide prevention program for Australian young people. Our research is consistent with the findings of a large scale European evaluation of YAM.

NSW Department of Education Deputy Secretary, Learning Improvement, Ruth Owen said YAM is a valuable program to the NSW Department of Education, to strengthen the mental health and wellbeing of its public school students.

“Prevention and early intervention of student mental wellbeing is central to the work of NSW Department of Education,” Ms Owen said.

“With an increased focus on students’ mental wellbeing and suicide prevention, schools have an important role in recognising and responding to the early warning signs of depression, anxiety, emotional distress, self-harm and suicide ideation.

“Youth Aware of Mental Health is one example of how the department partners with the best of the best in recognised and leading mental health organisations, such as Black Dog Institute, providing specific programs to effectively respond to and support children and young people’s mental health needs,” Ms Owen said.

The department was the first state education organisation in Australia to deliver the YAM program. Since 2017, the department has delivered YAM to over 20,000 students in NSW public schools and has plans to continue the delivery of this evidence-based program.

“The YAM program provides an approach to optimise wellbeing and minimise mental health risks for young people and has a positive flow on effect for families and schools; and is indicative of the practical information, skills and support being offered to NSW public school students across high schools in NSW,” Ms Owen said.

The study has been published in the International Journal of Mental Health Systems and can be read in full here.

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