This weekend Australia’s mental health professionals are being urged to think about how they can use social media when treating young people.
The Royal College of Psychiatrists is holding its first youth mental health forum in Melbourne, where they will examine not just the problems that the internet can cause but also the benefits to treatment offered by sites like Facebook.
The Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists has just set up a special group focusing on youth mental health.
Associate Professor Jane Burns, chief executive of the Young and Well Cooperative Research Centre in Melbourne, is addressing this weekend’s forum.
She says psychiatrists are well behind when it comes to understanding the relationship young people have with the internet.
“What we’ve traditionally said is well, you know, there’s an online world and there’s an offline world. And the offline world is the real world and the online world is the fake world or the make-believe world,” she said.
“Well young people don’t see it that way. They use it to communicate, they use it to connect, they use it to build networks, they use it to share information.”
She says problems like the promotion of eating disorders or self-harm and cyber bullying have all given the internet a bad name.
But it can also be used to improve the mental health of young people.
Professor Burns is encouraging mental health professionals to rethink how they interact with the young people they are treating.
“Are there ways in which you can talk about their lives and the ways they use technologies that might improve treatment?” she said.
“And it doesn’t matter whether it’s a drug therapy or whether it’s a psychological therapy; it makes sense to have a conversation about what’s going on in the context of a young person’s life.
“Another example might be around some of the resources that are already available. So Headspace has online counselling, Reach Out provides a mental health service for young people which has fact sheets and blogs and stories.”
Professor Burns says several groups are using Facebook to start conversations about youth mental health.
“So it might be, who are your Facebook friends; what do you do on Facebook; how do you share information; what privacy settings do you have in place? Because we know that there can be some major challenges around about being safe online,” she said.
“So it really is using it as a communications tool.”
Professor Burns acknowledges with the wealth of information on the internet, it’s difficult to ensure young people are getting reliable advice.
And with this in mind there is research underway looking at the possibility of what they are calling an “online triage”.
“Which essentially is a young person being able to ask a question, their level of distress being checked, and then being triaged into the appropriate service,” she said.
“So if they need to have immediate access to support, they’re triaged into that immediate access to support.
“So what it does is, it frees up services to provide the right type of support for those who are in crisis. Because there’s not a service, there’s a thing called Google; it’s pot luck at the moment in terms of how do young people get into the right service at the right time.”