Courtney Perrie talks to students at St Mark's Anglican Community Day School. Picture: Iain Gillespie/The West Australian

It's one of WA's best-kept secrets - the quiet little program slowly changing the way a generation thinks about mental illness.

Every week, education officers and volunteers from the non-profit group Mental Health Carers Arafmi (WA) visit schools around Perth or the Peel and Bunbury regions to talk to teens about mental health.

Their number one goal is to fight stigma by raising awareness of mental-health issues and highlighting the importance of early intervention.

This year school education officers Cally Jeffers and Courtney Perrie expect to see about 8000 students in more than 60 schools and another 6000 or so students via expos and other events such as university orientation days.

Ms Jeffers says often teens develop misconceptions about mental illness from indirect sources - myths, the media or what their friends have told them.

"A lot of stigma comes from misconceptions, myths like Jim Carrey's movie Me, Myself & Irene," Miss Jeffers says.

"Everyone thinks schizophrenia is having a split personality and it's not at all. The way we look at it is that giving them the facts is reducing the stigma and misinformation."

Another problem is the pressure on young people who have been thrown into the role of carer for a parent or other relative with mental-health issues.

Children as young as eight are helping to look after an unwell parent and caring for younger siblings.

Arafmi executive director Mike Seward says the organisation knows of a 14-year-old girl who goes around hiding the knives in the house whenever her father becomes unwell, to make sure he doesn't harm himself.

"That's not really what a 14-year-old should be doing," he says.

Ms Jeffers says children in the role of carers grow up very quickly.

"They take on all the tasks of a parent running the household, they're exposed to a lot of financial and economical hardship, and they miss a lot of being a kid and developing as a kid," she says.


"They can lose out in social development and social interaction with other kids - they might not want to invite kids over because mum or dad acts weird."

Long-term carers for someone with a disability or mental illness are also more at risk of becoming isolated and developing mental- health issues themselves because they don't realise they need support.

During the one-hour presentation the education officers share information about issues including depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, schizophrenia, bi-polar disorders, addiction and self-harm.

They highlight what it means to be a carer, help students identify small changes in their peers which might flag the need for help, and provide information on where and how to seek help for themselves or others.

A volunteer - either a relative caring for someone with mental-health issues or a person with a condition themselves - then gives a snapshot of the reality of living with mental illness.

Arafmi also helps teachers learn to spot students who may be struggling because of mental- health issues at home.

Signs include working hard at school but failing to complete homework, lingering after school because they don't want to go home, being socially isolated or unable to take part in extra-curricular activities.

Mr Seward says there's no doubt that the free program, which has been visiting government and independent schools for 10 years, has made a difference to the way young people think about mental illness.

"We are blazing the way with regards to destigmatising mental health in that 15-17 age group," he says.

"We have this cohort of West Australians now that have been through this program that shouldn't see people with mental-illness issues as scary.

"They will be in the vanguard of a new generation that will see mental health more like physical health - as a thing that needs to be dealt with."

The West Australian

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