Heroic help for youth mental health

To address the urgent need for greater understanding and improved treatment of mental health issues affecting teens and adolescents, Flinders University, in partnership with Breakthrough Mental Health Research Foundation and Little Heroes Foundation has announced its new Little Heroes Professor of Child and Adolescent Mental Health.

The collaboration between the foundations and the University strengthens the position of the Flinders University Institute for Mental Health and Wellbeing as a focal point in South Australia for ongoing research into a myriad of aspects in mental health, with ongoing support from Breakthrough and Little Heroes.

The magnitude of mental health issues affecting young people was laid bare by the July 2022 Australian Bureau of Statistics’ National Mental Health Survey which revealed the annual prevalence of mental ill health in 16-to-24-year-olds had surged from 26 per cent in 2007 to 39 percent in 2020-21, an unprecedented increase of more than 30 percent in 15 years.

“The mental wellbeing of adolescents aged 13 to 18 years worsened significantly during the pandemic, as social isolation, increased screen time and excessive social media use influenced greater deterioration. This equated to increases in mental illness – for example, the overall incidence of eating disorders increased by 15.3 percent in 2020,” says Matthew Flinders Distinguished Professor Tracey Wade, Director of the Flinders University Institute for Mental Health and Wellbeing.

John Mannion, CEO of Breakthrough, says the decision to fund the new Little Heroes Professor of Child and Adolescent Mental Health underlines a more strategic approach to mental health support.

“There is an urgent need to expand the research and rapidly translate findings into interventions and support systems. A dedicated Professor will help achieve this by bringing a more strategic approach to mental health support for young people, attracting more funding and investment, and attracting more high-quality researchers,” says Mr Mannion. 

“We believe this role will have immediate impact by raising the profile of important mental health research being done by Flinders University.” 

Professor Wade says introducing the new Professor to the Institute will have a transformative effect, aligning its current work with children and adolescents at schools (to prevent the development of mental health problems, bullying and to promote wellbeing), helping community sports organisations (by developing mental health fitness through community sport), managing digital technology-based problems (including online gaming and simulated gambling), tackling the downside of social media, and managing the impact of trauma on sleep.

“We need new solutions in a rapidly changing world environment, and having the best minds dedicated to this issue means we can formulate breakthrough interventions.”

Chris McDermott, Chair of Little Heroes Foundation, says he’s pleased that the charity’s long history of paediatric health support now includes a stronger focus on mental health care for young people.

“This new venture takes the relationship that already exists between Little Heroes, Breakthrough and Flinders University to a new level, bringing all of these organisations’ strengths together and amplifying their impact,” says Mr McDermott.

The new Little Heroes Professor of Child and Adolescent Mental Health will be responsible for leading a research program in child and youth mental health across prevention, early intervention and treatment; liaise with other child and adolescent mental health researchers; promote the research outcomes and liaise with service providers in South Australia to build capacity in evidence-based practice.

“It’s a progressive move that underlines Flinders University’s position as a leader in the research and treatment of young people’s mental health issues,” says Professor Wade.

The new position has been made possible through Breakthrough Mental Health Research Foundation and Little Heroes Foundation providing more than $1.2 million in funding across five years.

To support Breakthrough and Little Heroes’ initiatives in children’s mental health, you can make a donation below.