Skip to main content

Technologies’ huge potential to boost mental health

Technology and social media have fundamentally changed the way in which we communicate, connect and participate in life.

Almost all Australians take part in some aspects of the digital world and commercial organisations and big business have taken huge advantage of the technology revolution – we use online systems to shop and bank, make reservations at restaurants and hotels, and access and personalise our music and movies.

Where the power and reach of technology and social media is in its infancy however is in the provision of social services and supports that strengthen the wellbeing of individuals and communities.

I have dedicated my career to suicide prevention and am passionate about supporting children and young people’s mental health and wellbeing, but have felt at times that I am part of a battle that we as Australians are losing.

Australia’s suicide rate is still unacceptably high, with eight people ending their own life each day; and one in four children and young people experience a mental illness and yet 70 per cent still do not seek help or receive the care they require.

This is simply unacceptable for a country that prides itself as “the lucky country” and so for last 20 years I have been working with many partners and communities to identify how technology and social media can be utilised to strengthen children and young people’s mental health.

In October this year I had the privilege of spending the first of my two weeks as the 2016-17 Thinker in Residence for the Commissioner for Children and Young People Colin Pettit, presenting my research and holding discussions with young people and service providers, as well as government, industry and political leaders.

A resounding message was clear – WA children and young people want to have voice in shaping the mental health services that they use, and technologies are a fundamental part of their lives.

For some young people – particularly those living with a disability, in out of home care, or with a lived experience of mental illness – the role of technologies has fundamentally changed their lives yet there is a disconnect between young people’s use of technologies and the understanding of those working to improve young people’s mental health.

Overcoming this disconnect was a focus of the Thinker in Residence discussions.

Many professionals and parents wanted guidance on what e-mental health applications were evidence-based and also how to overcome organisations’ reluctance to try new ways of operating.

Others wanted to understand how disparate digital technology platforms, programs and infrastructure can be streamlined to improve mental health outcomes, and this is an active area of my work.

From 2011 to 2016 the Australian Government, through the Department of Industry and Innovation, funded the Young and Well Cooperative Research Centre, of which I was the CEO.

In these five years we explored and tested new digital models for providing mental health services and support such as the e-Mental Health Clinic, Music eScape and MyAssessment.

Today the legacy of the Young and Well CRC lives on through the Synergy project, which reimagines what a new 21st century system of mental health care looks like.

Fundamentally, Synergy positions the person and the community at the centre of the care model and explores how technologies can support compassionate and person-led care, reduce waiting times, and ensure that people get the right care at the right time, around the clock.

This new model is about self-management and empowerment, but it is more than that – it is about integrated, online services and an acknowledgement that young people with a lived experience and the communities in which they live have a critical role to play in reimagining this new system.

Western Australia is uniquely positioned to capitalise on the initial investment from the Australian Government.

The Thinker in Residence program has coalesced a group of like-minded organisations who want to do things differently.

Most importantly they have recognised that change requires a system reimagined – one that, with the right support, puts children and young people in the driver’s seat and gives them voice to shape the future that they want and that they deserve.

I will be returning in March 2017 to work with these agencies and young people in more detail about what some of these systems may look like and how young people can access and have more control over the mental health support they receive.

Our aim will be to create opportunities for people to connect, be heard and to access support in a way that reduces disparities, enhances social cohesion and supports diversity.

In this digital age it is the joint responsibility of industry, government, the not for profit sector, researchers and the community to design and deliver these opportunities and make real improvements to children and young people’s mental health and wellbeing.

Professor Jane Burns, 2016-17 Thinker in Residence