Helping young people come to terms with mental illness

August 30, 2005

Creating websites and placing posters in schools are just some of the ways self-help support groups (SHSGs) could reach young people with a mental illness, according to a study just completed at the University of Western Sydney.

Dr Ann Dadich spent three years researching such groups and found many were not being fully accessed by those who most needed them - young people.

Instead, young people were more likely to self-diagnose, research their illness through the Internet, or talk to friends about their problems.

"Collectively, SHSGs offered young people support...but not all young people regarded the groups as supportive," says Dr Dadich, who interviewed 53 young people for her research.

"At times, the support offered by the group did not meet the particular needs of the young person."

Dr Dadich conducted her research while studying for her PhD under the supervision of Associate Professor Meg Smith, from UWS' School of Applied Social and Human Sciences and President of the Mental Health Association, as well as Dr Natalie Bolzan, also of UWS' School of Applied Social and Human Sciences.

Dr Dadich is now working at the Social Policy Research Centre at the University of New South Wales.

The project attracted an annual stipend of $24,000 from the Australian Research Council and its findings will help raise awareness of SHSGs and improve the direction of social policy, the academics say.

For her project, Dr Dadich explored groups for people suffering mental health issues such as bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, eating disorders and substance use issues. This includes well-known 12 Step fellowships, like Alcoholics Anonymous and Emotions Anonymous.

"These non-profit support groups are run by and for people who come together on the basis of a shared experience," says Dr Dadich.

"While much research has been conducted on how adults utilise self-help support groups, there has been little investigation on the experiences of young people, despite the importance of youth mental health."

Such groups, according to Dr Dadich, are well supported by people aged between 40 and 50 who displayed significant symptoms of mental illness over a number of years.

However young people with a similar mental health issue tended to use the Internet to find out more about their illness and relied on conversations with friends.

"We also found that GPs were very important in helping these young people access information about their mental illness," says Dr Dadich.

When young people did access SHSGs, they found them a good support, offering a sense of belonging and the opportunity to identify with others suffering the same disorder.

"After all", says Dr Dadich, "we are more likely to believe the advice of someone who has 'been there.' Their advice may help us avoid some of difficulties they have experienced."

"Another issue for young people suffering a mental illness is actually being told they have such a condition and that they have to take medication," says Associate Professor Smith.

"Some people told them they were a 'problem' to their families, and this makes the young person suffering the disorder reluctant to seek help."

Associate Professor Smith says it is important for SHSGs to "re-pitch" themselves to young people.

"Organising activities aimed at young people, such as going for a coffee, or watching a video together, would also help the groups attract more young people," she says.

Adds Dr Dadich: "The Internet is a great way of attracting young people to a group - it offers a lot of anonymity to someone investigating personal issues.

"Schools are also an important environment to disseminate information to young people. It's important for SHSGs to get themselves known by local schools through the use of promotional material or visiting the school."

Dr Dadich is passionate about SHSGs and recognises their unique place in the community. She also acknowledges the tireless efforts of volunteers who keep the groups in existence.

"They serve as lifelines to many people who would otherwise feel isolated and perhaps be misinformed about their personal experiences," she says.

Research Australia

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