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Opinion piece in The West Australian - Vulnerable children are calling for help and want to be heard

by Colin Pettit

Over several months of this year, thousands of children and young people in years 4-12 from all over WA were invited to anonymously share how they see their day-to-day lives.

They considered their everyday activities, health and mental health, whether they felt safe, how they accessed support and how the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted them.

The outcome is the most compelling insight into our children’s wellbeing we have ever had in WA.

On Tuesday these views from more than 16,500 West Australian children and young people were tabled in State Parliament — individual voices speaking as one and representing the quarter of our community not yet old enough to vote.

The Speaking Out Survey contains vital information to guide policies and services both now and into the future and to track the wellbeing of children and young people over time. For any reader, it is also a fascinating window into the opportunities and the challenges of growing up in today’s world.

Most children and young people reported that they are healthy, their basic material needs are met and that they have adults in their lives who are supporting them.

This is exactly what we would hope to hear from all children and young people and would indicate they have shown great resilience during the COVID-19 pandemic, with the majority of young people reporting that COVID-19 had affected their life in a bad way “a little” or “not at all”.

What is of great concern is that mental health remains a critical issue for many, and the number of young people experiencing emotional distress has risen since the inaugural survey in 2019.

One of the alarm bells from the first survey was that female students rated their wellbeing less favourably than their male peers across a range of wellbeing measures, and this is clear again in 2021.

There have been multiple inquiries and plans on youth mental health over many years. However, based on the experiences and feedback from children and young people themselves, we are still not meeting the mental health needs of our children and young people and their families.

Too many young people, particularly in the high school years, reported poor life satisfaction, low self-esteem and the feeling that they cannot cope with life’s challenges.

Young people’s mental health concerns cannot be solely attributed to the understandable anxiety many of us have felt due to the COVID-19 pandemic. They have told us that school and study, family relationships, body image and other factors are impacting their emotional wellbeing.

The responses from Aboriginal children and young people demonstrate that despite generally feeling positive about their lives, they continue to fare less well than their non-Aboriginal peers in terms of material needs, family stability or expectations for further education. This ongoing divide highlights that despite the many programs, policies and commitments in this area, more needs to be done.

Some children and young people continue to say that they do not always feel safe at home, at school or in the community. This should concern us all. Every child has the right to be safe, feel safe, be respected and have their voices heard.

We want a community where all children thrive and have the opportunity to reach their full potential. We simply cannot adequately decide the services and supports children and young people need without considering their perspective.

As one WA young person wrote as part of the survey: “I would just like to thank the government for actually hearing our voices and I hope that they put action to this.” I am now in my final weeks of my term as WA’s Commissioner for Children and Young People and look forward to welcoming the incoming Commissioner in the new year.

Over the last six years I have heard from thousands of children and young people on the issues that impact their lives. There are constant themes — children and young people who are vulnerable are calling out for help and they want, and deserve, to be heard.

Having a young person agreeing to share their perspective with you is an enormous privilege and ensuring that these collective voices are heard in Parliament as well as across government and non-government sectors is a responsibility not to be taken lightly. I thank every young person who shared their views. Let’s honour them by listening and taking action to address the issues they have raised.

Published in The West Australian on 24 November 2021 on page 71.