Community-led programs in Tasmania’s north-west help teens improve mental health

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Alyssia Coates knows what it’s like to live in a dark place. 

After suffering a traumatic experience three years ago, she found herself unemployed. 

“I lost my self-dignity, my job title in a small town, and fell into quite a deep depression to the point where I attempted suicide,” she said. 

Ms Coates sought help through a psychologist but felt she regressed further. 

Then, an unexpected form of therapy came along. 

“We were lying in bed one night and I was scrolling through Gumtree and there were four milking goats and I went, ‘Oh, milking goats, I can do that’,” she said.

Her husband bought them, marking the start of their small family farm at Smithton in Tasmania’s far north-west. 

The growing herd of goats slowly helped Ms Coates find her self-worth.

a goat behind a fence with a sign saying "shut the gate mate".
Ms Coates wanted other people to benefit from working with animals.(ABC News: Luke Bowden)

“They appreciated me, they were happy to see me. It didn’t matter if I had makeup on, if my hair was everywhere, it didn’t matter if I was in my pyjamas,” she said. 

“It grew from being out of bed for half an hour to being out of bed for half a day and I could see an improvement in my own mental health.”

After seeing the positive impact, Ms Coates wanted to use the farm to help others. 

The family began developing the milk and soap-making business into a care farm, to provide young people with skills development and a sense of purpose. 

It was just one part of a community-led effort to help support local teenagers with mental health issues and to stop problems from cropping up in the first place. 

Increasing rates of youth suicide and self-harm

Suicide is the leading cause of death for Australians aged 15–24, according to data from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. 

The figures show that in 2020, deaths by suicide represented 31 per cent of all deaths in young people aged 15–17 and 39 per cent of all deaths in those aged 18–24. 

Brown goats in an enclosure
The goat farm started out as a milk and soap-making business.(ABC News: Luke Bowden)

That was up from about 25 per cent of all deaths in those age groups a decade earlier in 2010. 

Over the same period, hospitalisations for intentional self-harm in young people also increased. 

Research from the National Rural Health Alliance showed levels of mental illness were similar in rural and remote Australia compared to major cities, but access to mental health services was much more limited and rates of self-harm and suicide increased with remoteness.

A middle aged man gestures with his hands
Robert Waterman from Rural Health Tasmania says regional and rural areas need more psychologists. (ABC News: Luke Bowden)

Robert Waterman, the chief executive of Rural Health Tasmania, said rural, regional and even urban areas across the country were seeing a shortage of psychologists and mental health practitioners, resulting in long wait lists. 

“We know that youth now in Tasmania have the highest rates of completed suicide of any state in Australia outside of the Northern Territory,” he said. 

“So we definitely need to get more psychologists and mental health professionals on the ground in those rural and remote areas.

“We need to take a really strong approach and invest heavily in mental health now.”

Early intervention ‘crucial’

Smithton school students have been the first to work with Ms Coates’s goats, helping to feed animals, clean pens and build fences. 

Primary school principal Josh Smith said the farm was providing a valuable opportunity for young people to form social connections. 

“Especially now off the back of COVID and a lot of isolation, a lot of people not being able to develop parts of their social identity yet, that can stunt a lot of that and we can see a spike in mental health issues,” he said. 

A student in a bright orange shirt feeds a goat herd
Smithton primary and high schools students work with Alyssia’s goats.(ABC News: Luke Bowden)

“This farm won’t be for every kid or every youth but if five or six kids connect here and develop some skills, and practical skills as well that make them employable, then just building that self-esteem and self-worth and the way that they view themselves, I think is really important.”

Youth worker Dudley Billings said mental health issues were showing up across the spectrum, regardless of socio-economic status.

“People have issues with substance, people have issues especially with social media and that kind of thing,” he said.

“The way that people communicate via social media all the time can really lend itself to ruminative thought and isolation.

“The key is to let people know that they are part of a broader group of people that care about them.”

Research shows an association with higher rates of low self-esteem, anxiety and depression in people who use social media excessively

Mr Billings said he believed early intervention was crucial for younger people to pick up and address problems early. 

“If it’s unnoticed or undiagnosed then it’s exacerbated,” he said. 

“And then by the time people get into adulthood they can be dealing with some really complex mental health issues that may even have been able to be saved quite early.”

A young man stands in a shed
Dudley Billings says there needs to be better early intervention for mental health issues.(ABC News: Luke Bowden)

Youth project helps boost self-confidence

Poor self-esteem is being targeted through another local project, called the I Am Youth Project. 

Makayla Buckby, 15, is part of the group, which has participated in workshops focusing on building body positivity and self-esteem, finding role models and leading a photo shoot. 

“So we’re taking photos, and it’s all about growing self-esteem and furthering ourselves and growing confidence in ourselves rather than trying to live up to other people’s expectations,” she said. 

The project is helping young women like 13-year-old Shayla Guest work through anxiety and low self-esteem. 

A group of students have their photo taken on a beach
The I Am youth project is run by the Circular Head Council.(ABC News: Luke Bowden)

“I struggle with them a lot, sometimes they would take over and I had to learn how they are OK but there is ways to work with them,” she said. 

“I probably think that it comes from lot of social media and influencers that you think ‘oh wow, they’re so good, their life is so good and then you think that I’m not any of that’.”

Jodie Saville, a youth worker with the Circular Head Council, leads the program. 

A woman with glasses stands on a beach in front of a headland
Jodie Saville says the program helps build resilience. (ABC News: Luke Bowden)

“We’ve had our struggles, there’s definitely been a number of suicides,” she said. 

“This project is giving young people the skills to help them build resilience and confidence, so they can come back from your average setbacks.”

A safe space for teenagers to meet

Smithton’s Seven Up youth centre — for teenagers from year 7 and up — epitomises the small town’s efforts to curb its mental health crisis. 

It is fully funded by community donations and young people can drop in after school for a free feed, to meet friends and to connect.

Several services operate from the centre, giving the teens accessible help. 

A woman sits on a couch and looks at the camera
Camilla Woolley helps support teenagers through the Seven Up youth centre. (ABC News: Luke Bowden)

Camilla Woolley, a coordinator from the Circular Head Aboriginal Corporation, said the centre provided vital support. 

“There’s no pressure, it’s not a structured space, it’s entirely on them, like if they’re having a down day and they want to chat to someone the option is here, there’s a couple of private spaces here,” she said. 

“It’s a safe space for a lot of them, sometimes they come here because they just don’t want to go home, though that’s not the case for all of the youth that attend the centre.

“I think a fair few of them come for a free feed, it’s always a good drawcard.” 

A new service has been operating there in 2022, aimed at helping teenagers who need low to moderate mental health support. 

YouthARCH received Tasmanian government funding for the service, but only for one part time clinician. 

YouthARCH clinician Chris Steele said demand was already strong. 

“Common presentations that we see are things like anxiety and depression that may be preventing young people from attending school or participating in different activities,” he said. 

“So we come on board and work very closely with young people and schools and other service providers. 

“We’re really hoping that need we’re meeting at the moment is recognised and the service can be broadened out.”

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