Youth mental health

Youth workers as mental health gatekeepers

We’ve been asked a fair bit over the last month what our stance is on mental health. There seems to be two camps growing up in the youth sector. Those who see us as generalist youth workers who do not need to know about mental health except that we should refer on to more qualified help and those who believe that as one of the biggest issues facing our young people is something we should know about…mental health. One camp is ignoring issues for the sake of the profession, the other is seeking to adapt with the times.

It will come as no surprise to our long term readers that we sit in the later camp. We believe that youth workers provide a first responder service to young people experiencing mental health issues in the same way that paramedics provide physical health services. We often provide gatekeeper services to mental health support through triaging the case and providing support until a mental health professional can take them on. We do this now, and with little or no specific mental health training. We believe that by our inaction in dealing with our young peoples mental health we are, by default, causing harm to them.

We are not advocating that all youth workers become mental health clinicians. We are saying that we need more than a mental health first aid certificate. A two day course is not enough. We need to faithfully support our young people in all their trails and tribulations. We need to come to grips with the fact that our training programs written decades ago have lost their relevance and we need to update our frameworks. It is up to the academics to change the course structures. It is up to the sector to demand this. It is every youth workers responsibility to become better than they are right now. Mental health is only one area we need to become more proficient in.

Youth mental health

Youth worker mental health gatekeepers

Aaron Garth

Aaron Garth is the Executive Director of Ultimate Youth Worker. Aaron has worked as a youth worker in a number of settings including local church, street drug and alcohol outreach, family services, residential care, local government and youth homelessness since 2003. Aaron is a regular speaker at camps, retreats, & youth work training events and is a dedicated to seeing a more professional youth sector in Australia. Aaron is a graduate of RMIT University and an alumnus of their youth work program. He lives in Melbourne with his wife Jennifer & their daughters Hope, Zoe, Esther, Niamh and son Ezra.

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  1. Hi Garth, this is an interesting one. On the one hand you are absolutely right that we are the frontline, and that is simply going to be the case. But I don’t believe youth services will anytime soon train and supervise frontline staff to sufficiently respond to complex presentations. The reason my service insists staff refer to mental health services has nothing to do with professionalisation but everything to do with the inability of a casual youth refuge workforce to comprehend let alone take care of the complexities of attachment issues that are compounded to the level of psychosis. And yet they must have some comprehension of these complexities, to de-escalate the young person and identify the appropriate professionals to refer to. So I think the solution is for youth work staff to do further tertiary study in psychotherapy, for team leaders to have clinical experience, and for services to strongly advocate for mental health services.

    • I agree that youth workers need post grad training Nathan. But we need to up our meagre understanding of mental health in our lower level courses too. As you rightly point out, casual staff dont have the understanding to de-escalate situations. I believe all team leaders and managers should be required to have postgrad quals in the area to help them lead others in this endeavour. But we need to start at the beginning and raise the bar there first.

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