Depression: invisible, debilitating, complicated. It is estimated that six to seven percent of Australians aged 16-24 will experience this mental illness (Headspace, 2013). One in 16 young Australians are currently suffering (beyondblue, 2013). Awareness is beginning to grow, but stigma remains strong in many social communities. Support can be lacking, tragically at times when it is needed the most.
It’s no secret that university creates a great deal of pressure. For medical students, the combination of pressure and the traditional thought that ‘doctors cannot be sick’ can lead to hopelessness and helplessness. Monash University’s Jessica Dean is the President of the Australian Medical Students’ Association (AMSA). AMSA not only connects students nationally for peer assisted learning and support, but has also launched encouraging mental awareness and prevention campaigns. After all, “any stress management is better than none”.
AMSA recently held a conference to discuss its objectives and various partnerships and sponsors. Dean spoke of AMSA’s two core aims: increasing infrastructure and communication. By achieving these goals, AMSA intends to dissipate the societal stigma surrounding mental health and increase awareness and support for those who are most vulnerable.
Websites and social media are vital to communication. AMSA is already running mental health courses through its associated website, Academy of the Mind (https://academy.amsa.org.au/course-profiles/), and has established a Facebook page. It has also planned Blue Week campus events, which are run to raise awareness of mental health issues at universities. It has launched the ‘Get-A-GP’ campaign, encouraging students to seek a regular doctor in order to build rapport and address issues as they arise, rather than when it becomes too late. AMSA has published wellbeing guides for students, as well as established the AMSA Network: where mentors can identify at-risk mentees and vice-versa.
The first speaker was Professor Patrick McGorry, Melbourne University youth mental health professor and Australian of the year in 2010. He praised “the students taking a leadership role.” Professor McGorry also cautioned that mental health has a severe impact financially and globally, highlighting the necessity of AMSA’s work in the young medical community, and shared his hopes that this sort of enlightened movement may expand to encompass the general population as well.
Headspace Head of Corporate Affairs Elizabeth Tuckey followed, stating that Headspace was founded in order “to address the (mental health) problem in youth”. Believing that making mental health part of the conversation will alleviate social stigma, Headspace provides desperately needed infrastructure in an otherwise unwelcoming political environment.
Professor Jayashri Kulkarni, Professor of Psychiatry at both the Alfred Hospital and Monash University, was both well spoken and outspoken. “Psychiatry teaching is crap,” in her opinion, despite being “a really important part of health”. She encouraged medical students and AMSA to help revolutionise mental health and psychiatry teaching, as they were better placed to teach future generations.
Doctor Stephen Parnis, the Vice President of the Australian Medical Association (AMA) spoke next. He commended AMSA on their mentor-mentee program, adding that “this is about changing culture.” He restated the importance of taking an interest in high-risk medical students, agreeing with the need for more infrastructure and recognising the important of the Internet. He concluded by offering AMA’s ongoing support.
Jeff Kennet, chairman of beyondblue, left a video message for AMSA as he could not be present. “I thank them all for this (important) initiative,” he said, because “(the students) use their skills and learning to help others.” Kennet thinks that the peer group can help one another tackle issues of bullying, discrimination and mental health due to being in a powerful academic and educational position.
The next speaker was Doctor Sally Cockburn, the well-known media personality ‘Dr. Feelgood’. With 25 years of medical experience and 18 years in television, Dr. Cockburn is well placed to tackle sensitive health issues. She believes that age is a key factor in mental health, praising AMSA on its mentor-mentee program and complimenting the “good work (done) by young people.”
These initiatives and campaigns are all steps in the right direction: AMSA have passionate and motivated people at its helm. Time will give them improved results, whilst patience and open communication may lessen stigma and discrimination.