Community Noise

Tell us about headspace…


headspace is the National Youth Mental Health Foundation.


Our main hope is that headspace is the first platform that people think of for young people to go if they’re having mental health concerns. We don’t just want the young people themselves to know this, but also their friends, teachers, families.

We’ve been really successful since 2006 and we’ve now got 55 centres across Australia which will be up to 90 by 2015. The idea is that eventually every young Australian will have access to a centre if they need it.


We take this from a 3 pronged approach:


1. headspace centres (mental and physical health services, vocational and education support, support for carers)


2. e headspace (our online counselling and support service)


3. School support team (post-suicide intervention)


What’s your role at headspace?


Many of the centres have GPs working in them and I’m an advisor to those GPs. I also work as a GP at the Sunshine headspace centre, and have done so since it opened aas one of the first centres in 2006.


Around 15% of the consults our GPs have are around sexual health. That might be STI and blood borne virus testing, education and prevention, or contraception. So GPs are probably the biggest inroad for sexual health for young people at the centres.


A lot of young people tell us they don’t feel comfortable speaking to their GP about sexual health. Do you think GPs are the best people to be assisting young people with these issues?


The GPs in the headspace centres have developed expertise in engaging with young people. To work in a headspace centre, GPs have to be very, very comfortable with talking openly with young people about sexual health.


We know that young people aren’t so good when it comes to seeing GPs in general and often they’re not comfortable talking to their family doctor about their sexual or mental health. But when you get them in a supportive and open environment, they’re amazingly open to discussing these sorts of issues.


Every young person that has a consultation with a GP at a headspace centre is asked a series of questions about their sexual activity and sexual health. Sexual health is such low-lying fruit in terms of improving young people’s health; STIs can be prevented and many are easily treated. So it’s an area we’re working on and we’re developing program guidelines about managing sexual health treatment pathways for young people.


Of course GPs are also seeing other professional workers in centres including psychologists and other counsellors, youth workers, psychiatrists, mental health nurses as well as sexual health nurses, so there a range of people for young people to talk with about any sexual health as well as any mental health concerns.


What is the relationship between sexual health and mental health?


When young people are experiencing mental health concerns like anxiety, depression or low self esteem, often their capacity for risk management isn’t as good and they’re more likely to engage in risky behaviours, which can sometimes be risky sexual behaviours.  Also young people with early psychosis are also less likely to take the steps they need to take to protect themselves from harm.


Young people we see who are asking questions about their sexuality and gender identity can also be at a higher risk of having sexual health issues. This can be because their self-esteem has been impacted through worry about acceptance or because they’ve been excluded from sex ed and think sexual health doesn’t apply to them. Over time, with support these young people can be  empowered in a way that builds their confidence and self-esteem which assists their motivation and skills to act to protect their sexual health in addition to their mental health.


Can you give us an example of a time when you’ve seen first hand how experiencing mental health issues can impact a young person’s sexual health?


I’ve seen a young person recently with chronic depression who is very socially isolated. He does have a couple of friends though and part of the way he manages the isolation is going out with these people and drinking really heavily. He often has unprotected sex on these nights out and while he understands the risks, and will always take appropriate steps afterwards to get tested, it’s really hard to put interventions in place before-the-fact, to make sure he doesn’t put himself or others at risk. Getting to a point where he might be drinking less, or even just taking condoms with him when he goes out, is a really long process.


How are these sorts of issues tackled in the headspace environment?


The kind of situation above can arise as a complicated set of factors that include past negative experiences or trauma, current stressors at home, work or school, poor support networks, as well as unhelpful coping strategies or personality factors. A comprehensive assessment is the first step to assisting young people understanding the factors that are relevant to their own situation. GPs can work with young people to identify the areas that they would like assistance with as well as a mental health plan, which might involve a referral for counselling. The GP will remain involved to see how things are progressing and to review the plan if necessary. We have learnt from young people that the things that are important in their recovery from any problem they are facing may include: feeling connected, having hope, working towards independence, finding meaning and feeling empowered. These are some of the things that can be achieved through building positive relationships with a GP, counsellor or other worker when a young person is being supported in a headspace centre.


Of course, not everyone’s needs are the same, so some young people might not need to see a counsellor, but may benefit from just talking a few times with a worker about what is worrying them. Another option is to  see a GP about any physical health problem, including any sexual health concern.


The YEAH team sees sexual health as being more than just the biomedical side of things, but also about respect, consent and relationships. How do all these factors come together in the young people you work with?


Relationships are often the things that really worry or upset young people. The most common thing that young people say brings them to a headspace centre is mood and the second most common is relationships. When you’re in a relationship (whether it’s long term or casual) it’s sometimes difficult to negotiate safe sex because of an imbalance of power in the relationship, or because of one of the people’s strongly held views about safe sex or contraception.


It’s really important to engage with young people around ‘What does a healthy relationship look like? What is respect?’ etc because they’re often so worried about the relationship ending that they’ll do almost anything to avoid that.


One last question! Is there anything you’d like to share with young people this World Mental Health Day?


If you’re worried about anything to do with mental or sexual health, come and talk to someone at headspace, including doctors who are used to working with young people. Also, wear a condom! be happy!




Read more of the YEAH Sector Blog series:


Minus18 General Manager, Micah Scott, explains why more inclusive sex ed for same-sex attracted and gender diverse young people is super important.


2Spirits Program Manager, Michael Scott, talks CondomMan and tells us why indigenous sexual health should be a priority during NAIDOC Week. Read more.


WIRE’s Service Delivery Co-ordinator, Sheridon Byrne discusses the importance of young women being empowered to take control of their sexual health. Read more.

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