A long-awaited expansion of services set to improve mental health outcomes for youth in the Illawarra is just months away, and as the new Headspace centres at Shellharbour and Kiama start to take shape, the team is calling on young people to come on board and take on an important role in their creation.
For more than a decade, Headspace has been a safe, accessible and free space for young people who are seeking help but with the only local centres currently in Wollongong and Nowra, services have been under strain.
“It’s always been busy, it’s never really ever eased up but it’s potentially what some of the presentations have been that have been changing over time,” Headspace Wollongong service manager David Wootton said. “At times we are seeing more complexity and younger people experiencing more distress than in some previous times.
“The other thing that has happened for Headspace Wollongong, but this is true of Headspace centres nationally, is many psychologists or mental health clinicians have moved into the private workforce so our contractor workforce has depleted.”
But there is hope with the new centres, new programs and potential for more funding in the works.
Shellharbour’s new centre manager Charo Serventy said planning was underway to ensure the service met community expectations.
“At this stage we’re in establishment where we’re consulting with the community, we’re meeting with quite a lot of service providers to see what is helpful,” he said. “It’s really about planning, getting information from others, building those relationships with the different services and getting the name out there.
“We’re hoping towards the end of the year things will be ready.”
The long build-up is aimed at creating a localised approach rather than one size fits all.
“It means there’s a really clear sense of the community, services, knowing what to expect, what’s coming, when it’s coming,” Mr Serventy said.
“That kind of buy-in and awareness and ability to fit and prioritise to what is needed means that you’re starting from that place of trust where there’s not that fear of ‘this isn’t going to help’ or ‘this is going to disappear in a year’.”
The centre will offer psychotherapy and free access to a GP and will likely have sexual health nursing as well as a psychiatrist either on site or through telehealth.
But it will also utilise people who can offer support using both a professional and personal lens.
“One way that it might look a little bit different to most centres is that it’s going to aim to have a lot of that youth support coming from peer workers, so workers who themselves have their own lived experience around mental illness or caring for someone with mental illness,” Mr Serventy said.
The centre is currently seeking volunteers aged between 12 and 25 for its Youth Reference Group, which will have a say in the next steps and staffing choices.
“We get feedback every step of the way on how we’re designing things and every time we do interviews we’ll have a member of that youth reference group on the panel to give us insight into whether this person actually feels like they are a good fit for young people or are they actually just good at talking to older professionals,” Mr Serventy said.
The Wollongong centre still regularly consults with a Youth Reference Group to ensure programs continue to be relevant and effective to their target audience.
“That’s not just tokenistic, they are part of our planning process, they sit on interview panels. It’s very much informed and co-designed with young people,” Mr Wootton said.
Another centre is also in the works, for Kiama, with locals the driving force behind its establishment after many years of campaigning.
“They’ve also felt really geographically isolated from the services in Wollongong and Nowra that are really far away from them, so I think that community really advocated strongly and I think it’s a great success that they’re going to get that centre really close by,” Mr Serventy said.
The rental for that has also been secured on Manning Street in the town’s centre.
“We got some good feedback from young people in Kiama High about it, it seems like it is a great location and that will be a couple of months early into next year.”
But it’s not just the new centres that will improve access to services: existing locations such as Wollongong are hopeful that more money and funding structures could be on the horizon to improve staffing.
And the team is already actively working to recruit professionals early in their career.
“We’re strategising around that and reaching out to universities to attract those people before they even graduate,” Mr Wootton said.
“Right now we’re advertising what we’re calling a clinical registrar program and that is someone that is going to come out of their clinical master’s program. They have to go on and do a two-year registrar program and we’ve built a specific package for that kind of person.”
And although all these things will help reduce waitlist times, Mr Wootton said that regardless of the number of people on the list, now or in the future, Headspace was committed to ensuring they had access to support in a timely manner.
“When young people go through our intake and care planning process, which happens within a couple of weeks of someone getting in touch, our whole team will think about what is going to be the right service and create a plan for that young person depending on what they’re presenting with,” he said.
“If it’s not with us, it could be with a more appropriate service, and we have a vast knowledge base of the service landscape and other programs within the community.”
To find out more or to express interest in volunteering as part of a Youth Reference Group at any Illawarra Headspace centre, visit the Grand Pacific Health website.
And if you need support, or someone who know does, contact Lifeline on 13 11 14.