Collaboration • Knowledge • Leadership
It was your typical “tree change”. Bernard Galbally was working in the music industry in inner city Melbourne, but the avid bushwalker longed to be closer to nature. So he moved with his wife and two kids to Woodend in the Macedon Ranges. They set up on an acreage and settled in to enjoy the “horizons and big sky”. There was a romanticism to it. A sense of idyllic freedom. But even the brightest dreams can have their dark side.
“There are issues around rural and regional communities that city folk don't understand,” says Bernard. These days he is CEO of the youth mental health not-for-profit Youth Live4Life, but he arrived at that role via a steep learning curve. “I didn't realise the mental health issues young people face in those communities. Once kids reach 12 or 13 years old, the choices of what they can get involved with are very narrow. It can be isolating.”
Hard data underlines the unique set of problems faced in rural and regional communities. The Royal Commission into Victoria’s Mental Health System reported that rates of suicide are 40 per cent higher and rates of self-harm 30 per cent higher in rural communities than metropolitan areas. A recent joint study in the Macedon Ranges led by Orygen found pronounced levels of loneliness among 16-25 year old rural males.
More troubling is that more than 63 per cent of young people trying to access a mental health service in a rural or regional community cannot do so. In part, says Bernard, that’s a flaw of the traditional “hub and spoke” approach. That model often requires commutes of several hours for young people seeking services in regional centres. It also means workers often lack the genuine local connections necessary to effect meaningful change.
“The Live4Life model came out of need. Macedon Ranges has historically experienced a high rate of youth suicide and youth disengagement. Back in 2008, on one weekend we lost two young men to suicide and a third tried to take his own life. Something needed to shift. It was understood we needed to get in early, train young people and equip them with knowledge on how to look after their mental health and support each other.”
Live4Life does so through the provision of Mental Health First Aid training to young people and the wider community. Also, through building a network of young leaders “Crew”, who serve as mental health ambassadors at their schools and among their peer groups. A recent video series, created in direct response to the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, epitomises this youth-led approach to evidence-based education.
“We did a two-year evaluation at our pilot sites in Benalla and Glenelg,” says Bernard. “The evaluators found the experience in the Crew is profound and, in some cases, transformative for those young people.” Two graduates of the program were so impacted that they are working to set up a Crew4Life alumni network, to continue the promotion of mental health and wellbeing. “That’s very exciting,” says Bernard.
On the youth mental health landscape, the Live4Life model stands out as unique. It is community-driven and unapologetically rural. It is designed to be scalable, and adaptable to the needs of a given town or region. It promotes a whole-of-community approach, reaching out to involve not just school students, their teachers and parents, but local governments, health services, sports clubs and other community groups.
“One thing Live4Life does well is bring communities together,” says Bernard. “A highlight is the collective approach of schools, community and health services working together to ensure young people receive the support they need when they need it.” Importantly, the model is about “building the capacity of the community to support and look after their young people”, rather than burdening an already stretched mental health workforce.
“We were pleased with Victorian government initiatives like funding mental health practitioners in schools,” he says. “But the reality is that in rural communities, those schools are often unable to recruit mental health practitioners. So although the funding’s there, the workforce isn't. That’s where Live4Life comes in … It’s not a magic bullet, but we are already seeing changes in the communities where it has been implemented.”
As part of our 22-point State Budget Submission, Mental Health Victoria has called on the Victorian Government to enhance funding for youth mental health and wellbeing and suicide prevention in additional rural and regional Victorian communities. To find out more about Live4Life and how to apply to implement the model in your community, visit the Live4Life website.