Community programs in North West Tasmania help teens improve their mental health


Alyssia Coates knows what it’s like to live in a dark place.

After going through a traumatic experience three years ago, she found herself unemployed.

“I lost my dignity, my small-town job title, and fell into a pretty deep depression to the point where I attempted suicide,” she said.

Ms Coates sought help from a psychologist, but felt she had regressed further.

Then an unexpected form of therapy arrived.

“We were laying in our bed one night and I was walking through Gumtree and there were four goats milking and I was like, ‘Oh, milking goats, I can do that,'” she said.

Her husband bought them, marking the start of their small family farm in Smithton, in the far northwest of Tasmania.

The growing herd of goats slowly helped Mrs Coates regain her self-esteem.

Ms Coates wanted other people to benefit from working with animals.(ABC News: Luke Bowden)

“They liked me, they were happy to see me. It didn’t matter if I had makeup on, my hair was all over the place, it didn’t matter if I was in my pajamas,” she said.

“It went from half an hour out of bed to half a day and I could see an improvement in my own mental health.”

After seeing the positive impact, Ms Coates wanted to use the farm to help others.

The family began to develop the milk and soap making business into a care farm, to provide young people with skills development and a sense of purpose.

It was just part of a community-led effort to help support local teenagers with mental health issues and to prevent the problems from appearing in the first place.

Rise in youth suicide and self-harm rates

Suicide is the leading cause of death among Australians aged 15 to 24, according to data from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare.

Figures show that in 2020, suicide deaths accounted for 31% of all deaths among young people aged 15-17 and 39% of all deaths among 18-24 year olds.

Brown goats in a pen
The goat farm began as a milk and soap making business.(ABC News: Luke Bowden)

This accounted for around 25% of all deaths in those age groups a decade earlier in 2010.

During the same period, hospitalizations for intentional self-harm among young people have also increased.

Research by the National Rural Health Alliance showed that levels of mental illness were similar in rural and remote parts of Australia compared to large cities, but access to mental health services was much more limited and rates self-harm and suicide increased with distance.

A middle-aged man gestures with his hands
Robert Waterman of Rural Health Tasmania says regional and rural areas need more psychologists. (ABC News: Luke Bowden)

Robert Waterman, chief executive of Rural Health Tasmania, said rural, regional and even urban areas of the country were experiencing a shortage of psychologists and mental health practitioners, leading to long waiting lists.

“We know that young people in Tasmania right now have the highest suicide rates of any state in Australia outside of the Northern Territory,” he said.

“So we absolutely need to recruit more psychologists and mental health professionals on the ground in these rural and remote areas.

“We need to take a very strong approach and invest heavily in mental health now.”

Early intervention ‘crucial’

Pupils from Smithton School were the first to work with Mrs Coates’ goats, helping to feed the animals, clean the pens and build fences.

Primary school principal Josh Smith said the farm provided a valuable opportunity for young people to socialize.

“Especially now because of COVID and a lot of isolation, a lot of people are not yet able to develop parts of their social identity, that can set a lot back and we can see a spike in mental health issues,” he said.

A student in a bright orange shirt feeds a herd of goats
Smithton Elementary and Secondary School students work with Alyssia’s goats.(ABC News: Luke Bowden)

“This farm won’t be for all children or all young people, but if five or six children log on here and develop skills, as well as practical skills that make them employable, then it’s enough to build that self-esteem and that self-esteem and the way they see themselves, I think that’s really important.”

Youth worker Dudley Billings said mental health issues occur across the spectrum, regardless of socioeconomic status.

“People have issues with substance, people have issues especially with social media and that kind of stuff,” he said.

“The way people communicate all the time via social media can really lend itself to ruminative thinking and isolation.

“The key is letting people know they’re part of a larger group of people who care about them.”

Research shows an association with higher rates of low self-esteem, anxiety and depression in people who use social media excessively.

Mr Billings said he believed early intervention was crucial for young people to spot and solve problems early.

“If it’s unnoticed or undiagnosed, it’s exacerbated,” he said.

“And then, by the time people reach adulthood, they can be faced with very complex mental health issues that may have even been rescued quite early on.”

A young man stands in a shed
Dudley Billings says there needs to be better early intervention for mental health issues.(ABC News: Luke Bowden)

The youth project helps build self-confidence

Low self-esteem is targeted by another local project, called the I Am Youth project.

Makayla Buckby, 15, is part of the group, who took part in workshops focusing on building body positivity and self-esteem, finding role models and doing a photo shoot.

“So we take pictures, and it’s about building self-esteem and growing and gaining confidence rather than trying to meet other people’s expectations,” she said.

The project helps young women like Shayla Guest, 13, overcome anxiety and low self-esteem.

A group of students have their picture taken on a beach
The I Am youth project is run by the Circular Head Council.(ABC News: Luke Bowden)

“I struggled a lot with them, sometimes they would take over and I had to learn how they were okay, but there are ways to work with them,” she said.

“I probably think it’s coming from a lot of social media and influencers that you think ‘oh wow, they’re so good, their life is so great and then you think I’m none of that’.”

Jodie Saville, a youth worker with Circular Head Council, runs the program.

A woman with glasses stands on a beach in front of a promontory
Jodie Saville says the program helps build resilience. (ABC News: Luke Bowden)

“We had our struggles, there were definitely a number of suicides,” she said.

“This project gives young people the skills to help them build resilience and confidence, so they can recover from your average setbacks.”

A safe meeting space for teenagers

Smithton’s Seven Up Youth Center – for teens aged 7 and up – epitomizes the small town’s efforts to stem its mental health crisis.

It is funded entirely by community donations and young people can come after school for a free lunch, meet friends and connect.

Several services operate from the centre, offering adolescents accessible help.

A woman is sitting on a sofa and looking at the camera
Camilla Woolley helps support teenagers through the Seven Up Youth Centre. (ABC News: Luke Bowden)

Camilla Woolley, coordinator of the Circular Head Aboriginal Corporation, said the center provided vital support.

“There’s no pressure, it’s not a structured space, it’s all on them, like if they have an off day and they want to chat with someone, the option is there , there are some private spaces here,” she said.

“It’s a safe space for a lot of them, sometimes they come here because they just don’t want to go home, although that’s not the case for all the young people who come to the centre.

“I think a lot of them come for a free stream, that’s always a good card to draw.”

A new service is operational there in 2022, aimed at helping adolescents who need low to moderate mental health support.

YouthARCH received funding from the Tasmanian government for the service, but only for a part-time clinician.

YouthARCH clinician Chris Steele said demand is already strong.

“Common presentations we see are things like anxiety and depression that can keep young people from going to school or participating in different activities,” he said.

“So we’re on board and working closely with young people, schools and other service providers.

“We really hope that the need we are filling at this time will be recognized and the service can be expanded.”


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