How these Fearless Women are tackling Canberra’s teen mental health crisis

Canberra is widely known as Australia’s most affluent city, but scratch the surface and there’s a worrying adolescent mental health crisis.

The ACT has Australia’s highest rates of teenage mental illness, with a Mission Australia and Black Dog Institute survey finding that 33 per cent of 15 to 19-year-olds met the criteria for serious mental illness, against a national average of 23 per cent.

The situation for teenage girls is particularly bad, with more than 40 per cent suffering high psychological distress, and 15 to 19-year-old girls identified as the biggest at-risk group for mental illness.

These are statistics Rania Yallop knows first hand.

Ms Yallop comes from a loving home, but descended into depression at high school, describing herself as “rebellious, delinquent” and “difficult”.

“Everything was overwhelming, I didn’t know how to do anything,” Ms Yallop said.

Ms Yallop said that, just before her 14th birthday, she attempted suicide for the first time.

She knows she is not alone in this experience.

“I don’t think it’s uncommon for people 13, 14 years old to be going through some really serious troubles,” she said.

‘They’ll say they have tummy pains, but you know it’s probably anxiety’

A petite dance teacher talks to some students in a studio
Dance teacher Julie Sheer says early intervention services are needed now, more than ever.(ABC News: Craig Allen)

Canberra dance school owner Julie Scheer says she has also noticed a worrying trend of declining mental health amongst her teenage students.

“You can just see that they start looking like they’re withdrawing and their mood is low,” Ms Scheer said.

‘Often they’ll say’ I’ve got tummy pains’ or something like that, but you know it’s probably anxiety.

But why does Canberra, with its nation-leading living standards and average weekly wages, have such a high rate of teenage mental illness?

A study from the Australian National University found that the ACT college system, the lack of diversity of local career options, and pressure from high-achieving professional parents, were all contributing stressors to Canberra teenagers.

Glenda Stevens, CEO of Fearless Women, said the city’s largely professional workforce and pressure to live up to community expectations could be fuelling a “fear of failure” among girls, which could spiral into mental health problems.

“The girls are very harsh on themselves, they demand that they are perfect,” Ms Stevens said.

“There’s a sense that they should be aiming to go to university and get a job in the public service.”

Ms Stevens said Canberra’s transient population also meant that many young women did not have traditional family support networks – which is where her new charity, Fearless Women, comes into play.

Early intervention is key

Fearless Women is a community organization which seeks to build confidence and resilience in girls and young women in the Canberra region.

Like Menslink, which has a 20-year history of counseling, mentoring and in-school education programs for boys and young men, Fearless Women aims to offer early intervention and support services to girls.

Portrait of a woman with gray hair and a purple shirt
Glenda Stevens is the CEO of Fearless Women, an early intervention not-for-profit organization.(Supplied)

The charity focuses on short-term counseling, long-term mentoring, and visits to Canberra schools to talk to teenagers about the issues they’re facing.

“Fearless women are… aimed at supporting women aged 10 to 25 to develop and grow to become the best person they can be; the best version of themselves,” Ms Stevens said.

A decade on from that first suicide attempt, now working as a media professional, Ms Yallop said she realizes how key early intervention is.

“Especially when you’re a teenage girl, like I loved my mum to death, but… I [didn’t] want to talk to her about anything, “she said.

“Having an early intervention service that can keep up with those demands, and being somewhere you can go to, is a good idea.”

A young woman holding her face in her hands, as someone comforts her.
Ms Yallop says an early intervention service that can keep up with demand is welcome.(Pexels: Polina Zimmerman)

Ms Scheer said the COVID-19 pandemic had also exacerbated problems for teenagers, and she too welcomes the introduction of Fearless Women’s programs.

“Over the last nearly 17 years now I have observed so many young women who I think would really benefit from this initiative,” Ms Scheer said.

“I see the need for it. I really do. It’s clear. It was clear to me before COVID, I already thought it was essential, but especially now after COVID.

To date, Fearless Women has been privately funded, but the organization is seeking government support to roll out its services across the ACT.

The charity is also calling for women to come forward and sign on to become mentors for a two-year period.

“We actually want girls to be bold and strong, and to fearlessly find their way in the world,” Ms Stevens said.

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