Just one in six young people in Australia are optimistic about the world’s future. Hopelessness about our future has been on the rise in young people since the early 2010s and, in the exact same period of time, the rates of mental ill health in young people have increased dramatically.
This is no coincidence. Hopelessness is closely intertwined with mental ill health symptoms like depression, rampant amongst young people. This has led us to a situation where, despite commendable efforts by governments and the mental health sector, mental ill health is very prevalent in young people and, devastatingly, death by suicide is the leading cause of death for 15-24 year olds in this country.
Young Australians are keenly aware of the world around them. They are more engaged politically and socially than perhaps any previous generation, with social media and the 24-hour news cycle exposing young people to a continual stream of dire news about our future, which is certainly contributing to this mental health crisis and the sense of hopelessness.
But the problem runs deeper than that. Young people are being left out of political decision making to shape their future. They cannot change the world as it seems to continually run away in crisis after crisis. This lack of agency over their future needs to change for us to see rates of mental ill health move in the right direction.
Mental ill health and politics
We know that when people have agency in their private lives, their mental health is better. A good example is in the workplace. When people feel as if they have control over their job and like the work they do, their workload and their environment, they are less likely to report mental ill health symptoms. Beyond the workplace, when people are experiencing financial stress or hardship, but believe that they have the power (agency) to change their situation, their mental health is protected to some extent.
Agency – a sense of being able to control the world around you – has positive mental health connotations. Agency is precisely what is missing with young people and the way we do politics today. There is very little that young people can do to actually shape the future in the way that we want to see it.
The median age of NSW politicians is around 50 – around 11 years older than the median age of the NSW population itself. Older generations have grown up in an economically stable time, houses were cheaper, university was free for many, and the cost of living was nowhere near as egregious as it is now. With a consistently older demographic in parliament, the wants and needs of our young people have not been consistently met by lawmakers.
Parliamentarians from older generations may not live to see the full effects of crises like climate change, and so it is not at the forefront of their thinking. Similarly, there is little prospect of change for how we do property ownership in this country because both sides of politics know that would cause electoral issues owing to an older, property-owning electorate. So, hundreds of thousands of homes continue to sit vacant in NSW whilst young people are locked out of the enormously inflated housing market and face the competitive chaos of renting.
A perfect example of this is the recent spending figures released by the ABS. They show clearly that young people are cutting back their spending to all but the essential, while older generations are spending more. Young people are therefore suffering double jeopardy: cutting back spending to the bare minimum whilst having rents rise due higher interest rates in response to inflation that is driven, in part, by non-essential spending of older property owners. Young people feel like there is no support for them in these conditions, and no real way for them to improve their situation.
It is precisely bleak conditions like these that feed into the hopelessness of young people and contribute to the soberingly high rates of mental ill health that show no sign of slowing down. So, what can be done to give young people a sense of control and agency over their own future, so that it may not be as bleak as it seems?
Options for reform
Most obviously, young people could just band together to vote in more of their own at the next election. But that, unfortunately, will not solve the problem. Any young person who represents a major party will have their hands tied by party policy. Having younger people in parliament would be by no means a bad thing, but more than that is required to incorporate the voices of our young people in decision making.
NSW already has a Youth Advisory Council (YAC), but it is small and has minimal opportunities and power to influence policy choices made by the government in favour of young people. The NSW Government should transform the YAC into something bigger, more meaningful and, crucially, involve more young people in it.
Currently, YAC members aged 12 to 24 are appointed by the Minister for Youth (currently Rose Jackson) and advise the minister and the Advocate for Children and Young People. The NSW Government should institute direct election for YAC members by young people, which could start off as voluntary but then move to being compulsory. People aged 12 to 24 would vote for YAC members, thereby involving more young people in the civic process and building a sense of agency in who is representing them on this committee.
The government should expand the YAC from twelve members to 24 to help to achieve better diversity, including in age, First Nations status, regionality, cultural, linguistic, gender and sexual diversity. This committee should then be adequately resourced and supported by the Advocate for Young People.
In a state where people as young as ten can be imprisoned, then surely young people old enough to vote for people to represent their interests.
Just having a revised youth council is not enough, however. The NSW Government should also require public servants to include an intergenerational impact assessment in any new policy proposal to ensure longer term effects of policies are researched and made explicit to decision makers. These intergenerational assessments could also be shared with the YAC in advance to allow for them to make comments.
What this two-pronged approach would be a consistent avenue for elected young people to discuss the impact of these policies on them and future generations. This will help decision makers understand the benefits or harms of this policy for young people in general and for specific sub-groups. With further resourcing, the YAC could also start producing their own submissions and make recommendations to parliament outside of the NPP process.
This reform would go beyond the tokenistic. It would not just be for “youth week” or “youth month”, but instead it would be a permanent fixture allowing young people to directly advise government on everything.
Simply seeing the government invest in expanding the YAC into an elected body that provides consistent advice to the government of the day might help lift some of the hopelessness of young people by giving them a genuine means to shape their future.
Harry Grant is the Government Relations Advisor at the Black Dog Institute. Harry has been a long-time advocate for mental health in his own life with lived experience of mental health conditions. He is passionate about seeing change for the better in youth mental health.
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