Exploring the mental health needs of young people in rural and regional Australia

A qualitative exploration of young people’s mental health needs in rural and regional Australia: engagement, empowerment and integration

by Christiane Klinner, Nick Glozier, Margaret Yeung, Katrina Conn, and Alyssa Milton

Published 13 October 2023

What's the issue?

Young people in rural communities may experience additional stressors to mental health, such as the impact of adverse environmental events like drought.

Existing research has examined barriers to young people’s help-seeking behaviours in drought-affected communities. Still, there is limited research about the types of support, programs and education that help to facilitate help-seeking.

Professional services are often limited in rural communities, so it is important to learn from young people what kind of support or education is most valuable to them when seeking help for mental health concerns, including non-professional options, such as peer support programs or school-based education.

What was done?

Researchers undertook a qualitative study to explore the barriers, needs and solutions of 14 to 15-year-olds in drought-affected rural and regional communities regarding mental health education, help-seeking and support, specifically focussing on how to facilitate help-seeking.

The study had two key aims:

  • To gain an in-depth understanding of the experiences of young people and their needs regarding mental health
  • The second was to evaluate an educational program called batyr@school, which was delivered to a number of schools participating in the study. This evaluation was undertaken by comparing pre and post-data of participants who participated in the batyr@school program.

To collect the qualitative data, researchers conducted individual and group semi-structured interviews with students and a small number of parents and school staff between June 2021 and June 2022.

In total, 26 rural and regional school communities from drought-affected areas of New South Wales were invited to participate in focus groups or individual interviews.

The interviews explored four questions:

  1. Participants’ views on how drought impacted their local community from a mental health perspective
  2. Participants’ understanding of locally available mental health support resources
  3. Young peoples’ help-seeking experiences, including what participants would do if another young person reached out to them for mental health support
  4. Participants’ views on their community’s attitudes and beliefs about mental health concerns, stigma and help-seeking.

Participants were also asked for improvement suggestions in all four focus areas.

Interview transcripts were analysed and coded into themes and topic areas. Themes and sub-themes were consolidated in team discussions.

What was found?

Community barriers
  • Where communities experiencing natural disasters also had high levels of social disadvantage, substance use problems and domestic violence
  • Long distance to health care facilities, long wait times, and a lack of local youth mental health services
  • Mental health services provided as a one-off visit were seen to be offered on an inconsistent basis and lacked continuity
  • Limited community events for young people
  • Youth-focused community centres were seen as concentrating on children and lacking essential infrastructure and personnel.
Family barriersFamily enablers
  • Students described parents (especially fathers) as time-poor and experiencing their own drought-related mental health challenges
  • Parents often lacked the skills to communicate and support mental health concerns
  • Students felt that disclosing information to parents was at times, leaked into the community
  • Students avoided accessing online mental health support in case their parents saw it
  • Teachers described some parents as non-cooperative when approached directly about concerns for their child's wellbeing
  • Parents' maladaptive (physical aggression) ways of coping with mental distress.
  • Good relationships between parents and students were important to students’ mental health and wellbeing
  • Parent sharing their lived experience of mental health concerns.
School-based barriersSchool-based enablers
  • School counselling was under-resourced and unavailable when needed
  • Teachers feeling ill-equipped to manage complex mental health needs
  • The challenge of teachers balancing student privacy and teacher responsibilities.
  • Students valued educational mental health programs
  • Students felt that a whole community approach was needed, which included educating adults on mental health
  • Students valued school counselling
  • Students trusted teachers to help them and described them as essential to their mental health and wellbeing.
Peer level barriersPeer level enablers
  • Students were aware of their abilities or lack of ability to support peers and felt big responsibilities.
  • Peer friendship and support were of the highest importance to students
  • Students preferred to support each other over accessing professional support.
Individual barriers
  • Students often knew when something was ‘wrong’ with their mental health but didn’t know how to describe it or get the help they need
  • Due to a lack of knowledge of how to cope with their experience, they would use maladaptive ways to cope, such as physical aggression towards teachers, towards each other, and to themselves in the form of self-harm or suicide
  • Social media was deemed unsupportive when depression and mental health concerns were depicted alongside self-harm and suicide.

General research outcomes:

  • All interviews described stigma in the community as a barrier to accessing mental health support
  • Education needed to be delivered to the whole community
  • Educational programs need to be tailored to the local context
  • Local mental health services that were free of charge were recommended
  • Participants recommended an earlier start age for mental health education, such as primary school.
Why are findings important?

This study highlights the important enablers of mental health education and support for young people in drought-affected rural communities.

The findings of this study show that a multi-level prevention approach is required that includes early mental health education for parents, is specific to the local context, and provides young people with skills to support their own mental health and the mental health of peers.