Gasping for breath: why young Australians need intentional support

By Ruth Limkin

I heard something the other night that took my breath away.

It did so because I had several childhood friends with severe asthma and it’s impact should not be minimised. Their struggle to breathe, the constant threat to their life, their fear that their illness would overtake them all made their burden one which deserved the very best support. No-one questioned it’s medical legitimacy. Everyone recognised the threat.

So when I heard that something had superseded asthma as the leading health concern diagnosed in Australian young people, I was interested. When I heard what that illness was, I was grieved.

It seems that quietly, almost silently,  another potentially deadly illness is swamping young Australians. And it’s starting at a frighteningly young age.

On page 29 of “For Kid’s Sake“, a report authored by Professor Parkinson on the state of young Australian’s social environment, we find a chilling sentence. “In Queensland, anxiety and depression surpassed asthma in 2006 to become the leading cause of health burden to girls under 14.” [Emphasis mine]

Anxiety and depression isn’t just occurring in children – it’s overtaking them.

Sadly, it’s perhaps not surprising then that by 2006 there was a 66% increase in 12-14 year olds who have been admitted to hospital as a result of intentional self-harm.

Anxiety and depression are as legitimate health concerns as asthma. Both of them leave children struggling to breathe. One is easy to see, the other much harder. One is generally free of stigma, the other not so much.

We need to give the conversation some oxygen. We need to bring things into the open, talk about mental health concerns and de-stigmatise anxiety and depression.

We need to be willing to ask what we can do – as individuals, as communities, as elected representatives – and we need to listen. We need to listen to policy ideas and to professionals like Professor Parkinson. But most of all, we need to listen to those in pain.

We may not have the answers, but we can offer a hand of friendship. We can ask if they are ok, and help them find care if they’re not. Importantly, we can remind them that they’re not alone.

Doing something about this may be volunteering with an excellent organisation like Group 61. It could also be as simple as starting a conversation this week which demonstrates awareness and compassion of mental illness. For young people who are silently suffocating in mental distress, what a breath of fresh air that could be.



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