The West

Online is a lifeline for many teens
Online is a lifeline for many teens

Computers are blamed for causing much trouble, strife and emotional upset in the turbulent life of today's social media-obsessed teenagers.

Yet when they are distressed and overwhelmed and don't know how to cry for help, it is the internet that is throwing out a lifeline they are willing to grab on to.

Australia's leading youth health groups are now offering email and web chat counselling. Some are venturing into Facebook, Myspace, YouTube, Twitter and chat rooms to find troubled teens and offer them sound evidence-backed, youth-friendly advice on the issues making it tough for them to get through the day. And there has been a big uptake of these online services.

Demand for text-based counselling and crisis chat support in particular has increased, meaning more adolescents are heading down an e-path to recovery, often even before parents and teachers have realised there is something wrong.

It seems that when online - where they are not required to say who they are or show their face - many reluctant teens are prepared to take that first cautious step towards tackling issues.

These issues range from struggling to make friends at school, dealing with exam stress, bullying and teenage relationship troubles through to abuse, self-harm, eating disorders, drug addiction and emerging mental health problems.

Eating Disorders Foundation of Victoria's Megan O'Connor said her organisation's website annual hit rate had "gone through the roof" in recent years, now up to 1.1 million.

Servicing WA both online and via a telephone helpline, a fifth of its helpline contact was through email and it had also had an increase of 602 per cent in its chat room usage from 2007/2008 to 2010/2011.

Focused on recovery, supervised by a moderator and linking more than 1000 females and males battling eating disorders, this chat room was proving to be crucial in combating the damaging impact of pro-anorexia websites, she said.

In suicide prevention, the crisis support group Lifeline reports a similar influx. It has decided to extend its short-term trial of an online confidential crisis support chat service for those feeling suicidal and quickly develop it into an ongoing national service.

Even still, waiting times can be "considerable".

And when headspace, the National Youth Mental Health Foundation, launched a pilot program of internet- based counselling services 18 months ago, targeting WA's drought-affected regions, it was contacted online by youths from every State and Territory despite no national promotion.

Kids Helpline research manager John Dalgleish said young people's desire for text-based counselling was so strong he guessed he could probably double services and still not meet the need. At the moment, however, it remained slower than phone counselling.

Such quality internet-based services are also helping plug cracks in the health system, overcoming great distances, offering aid when there are waiting lists, combating inaccurate and unhelpful online data and targeting youths not prepared to go to their GP or feeling too anxious to phone a helpline.

Over time, they are also guiding many teenagers to eventually seek out face-to-face services and online treatment programs.

Early research on online services was indicating that the more distressed a young person became the more likely they wanted an anonymous source of support, particularly the internet, said Inspire chief executive Jonathan Nicholas, who heads an internet-based foundation that works to inspire young people to help themselves.

His Australian-based service was the world's first online mental health service, he said, starting in 1998. And it continued to be a vital port of first call for 14 to 25-year-olds.

Mr Dalgleish, from Kids Helpline, said emailing and online counselling had become a common first point of contact for those dealing with child abuse.

"For many young people, online is the first step they take when testing the service - whether we will listen, accept and recognise the experiences they are going through," he said.

Yet Lifeline says its analysis of research indicated that it was more the convenience and the familiarity of the internet that was attracting teens to use it to seek help rather than the "faceless anonymity".

A 2008 University of Melbourne Orygen Youth Mental Health Research survey of 2000 youths showed 40 per cent had used the internet to seek information about a mental health problem, regardless of whether they had a problem.

Having spent the past few weeks touring WA to promote headspace's growing online services, eheadspace manager Vikki Ryall confirmed young people were increasingly diverting their attention to online health services, which she described as a "soft way" to access help and one that seemed to be leading to "quicker disclosure".

"This medium has the potential to allow those young people to access it in a less stigmatising, safer space - in their own home or a place where they can go to use it safely and confidentially," she said. "They don't have to let anybody know that they are doing it.

"And what the research also seems to show is that there is disclosure quicker . . . that young people get to the point quicker. Certainly, our experience is that young people do jump straight in to whatever their concerns are."

Describing headspace as a late entry into the world of internet counselling, she said eheadspace was trying to extend headspace's reach by taking youth mental health clinical services to the telephone and online.

Those already contacting it online were dealing with such issues as deliberate self-harm, suicidal thinking, psychotic symptoms, personality disorder difficulties, loss and grief, anxiety, eating disorders, depression, parental drug use or mental health difficulties, history of abuse, obsessive compulsive disorder, family violence, bullying and relationship difficulties and homelessness.

Ms Ryall said client surveys showed that many young people had been struggling with "their difficulty" for quite a while before contacting eheadspace.

Already is putting its feelers out in the internet - through Facebook, Myspace, YouTube and Twitter - searching out the troubled teens who don't come to its website or Google "I need help with . . . " and is actively pushing mental health promotion into "their world".

In particular, it hopes to get to young males, traditionally known to be the worst at seeking help, whether it be from a doctor, a telephone helpline or a website.

And success to date has seen presented with a Suicide Prevention Australia LIFE Award for pushing boundaries in social media.

On top of the 1.4 million visitors a year to its website, is now using Facebook to engage with young people and share inspirational and lighthearted content relating to wellbeing, hold serious discussions around help-seeking, suicide prevention and mental health disorders and run competitions and campaigns on dealing with such teen troubles as bullying and break-ups .

YouTube is predominantly being used for showcasing young people's opinions and the support of celebrities and Twitter is being used for advocacy issues. All material is also being streamlined for smart phone usage.

"The gender usage of our main site is disproportionally young women who come to but when you look at our engagement in Facebook and particularly YouTube it is much closer to 50/50," Inspire chief executive Mr Nicholas said.

And when teens saw the online health information, whether or not they dismissed it or acted on it was directly affected by whether they believed the website it came from was " a place that understands them and their issues and their world".

"The real risk for services is if you are perceived to be expert-led and adults telling young people these are the issues that they should care about," Mr Nicholas said.

"Part of our mantra over the years has been if it's an issue for a young person, then we will have content on it.

"We do not make any judgment as to which is more serious or not. We just want to make sure they find something and they can start their journey."

And experts agree this is the key - that more energy must be focused on getting more teens to start the journey to recovery.

In the Medical Journal of Australia, Ian Hickie, of the Brain and Mind Research Institute, and e-Mental Health specialist Helen Christensen reported that Australian mental health services had failed to engage those in great need of care, with this being most evident among young people.

"Due to rapid technological advances and local expertise, we now have a major national opportunity to become a leader in the development of new forms of internet-based mental health care," they reported.

"By contrast, if we continue to spend most of our time and resources on tinkering with existing health services, then by 2020 it is highly likely that the majority of those in need will still not receive appropriate care."

The West Australian

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