Benalla Rural City is a picturesque Victorian community of expansive agricultural lands, and renowned for flourishing art, food, wine and tourism trails. Home to over 14,400 people, the community tackles many of the same mental health challenges that are prevalent in other rural and regional communities throughout Australia. Putting young people at the forefront of positive well-being change has been a key component of the community’s strategy to address high rates of youth mental health problems.
In recent years, the community has called for more to be done to support young people experiencing troubled times, mental health problems and suicide risk. In particular, the need for improved mental health education was recognised, and the Benalla Rural City Council set about investigating options for preventative action, to help keep young people safe and thriving.
The Live4Life Program was identified as a key option to address youth suicide and mental health concerns, given its proven success in other Victorian rural communities. Central to the Live4Life Program is the delivery of Mental Health First Aid® (MHFA™) training for young people and the adults supporting them. The intention is to create more supportive environments, with a scaffolded approach to youth mental health.
Now in 2022, Benalla Rural City has been recognised as a Mental Health First Aid Australia Champion Community. They have trained over 1,000 teens and over 165 adults to recognise and respond to the signs of developing, worsening or crisis level mental health problems in young people.
“We want to give all young people the opportunity to learn about identifying in themselves, their peers and their family, the signs of someone going through a mental health problem, and to equip them with the tools for responding to this,”
Bernie Hearn, Mayor of Benalla Rural City Council
Placing young people at the centre of their mental health support
A key component of the Live4Life Program is to systemically educate young people within a school-based setting. This maximises reach while capturing young people at a critical time of development and learning. Statistically, the teen and early adulthood years remain a time of heightened risk for developing mental illness, including suicidal thoughts and behaviours. Providing age-appropriate preventative mental health education and developing in-community supports are essential to proactively improving mental health outcomes for young people.
Teen MHFA (training to help young people support their peers) is delivered to Benalla students in years 8 and 11 across three secondary schools (Benalla P-12 College, FCJ College Benalla and Benalla Flexible Learning Centre). Youth MHFA is also delivered to adults who engage directly with young people, including teachers, parents, carers, coaches and other community leaders.
“This wrap around approach empowers young people to play an active role in mental health support. It also ensures they have a strong network of skilled and approachable adults around them. It helps young people to know how to support a friend who is going through a mental health problem, including connecting them with a reliable adult when needed,” says Mayor Bernie Hearn.
A key facet of Teen MHFA training is ensuring that it is relevant to the social and emotional needs of young people. There is a strong emphasis on breaking stigma and generating positive narratives about mental health in the community. The program also recognises the inherent power that young people have in generating positive change for their generation.
“Young people are well equipped to provide support to their peers. Training them with the knowledge, skills and confidence to do so, empowers them to be drivers of change where they learn, live and socialise. This in turn builds a more cohesive community for all,” says Caillin Moore, Community Engagement and Account Coordinator at Mental Health First Aid Australia.
Photo – Serana Hunt-Hughes
Capturing community needs and strengths
Over the past decade Benalla Rural City Council has been proactive in identifying and responding to the needs of young people. They have conducted extensive community consultation, engaged youth researchers, and liaised with political members, community groups and service agencies. This commitment has forged an emphasis on evidence-based action.
In 2018 and 2021, Benalla Rural City conducted surveys of over 600 young people to identify issues of importance to themselves and their peers. Mental health was raised as one of the top concerns – reinforcing the need for localised action. These concerns were incorporated into Council’s 2022-2026 Youth Strategy which identifies mental health education and support services as key objectives. The Live4Life Partnership became a key component and ‘Engage!’ funding was secured through Victorian Government to rollout the program over three years, with anticipation of renewal into the future.
To ensure that the program involves people at all levels of the community, there has been an additional commitment to engaging with schools, sporting clubs and industries in which young people work. This extends support across education, employment and recreation settings, to generate a broad safety net for young people in need.
Mayor Bernie Hearn explains why this is important.
“Whether a young person is showing signs of struggling while at they are at school, playing footy, or in their work as an apprentice, there is a greater chance of someone picking this up, and being able to follow a practical action plan to keep that person safe.”
There has also been an investment into capacity building, with a total of 11 locals receiving Instructor training and accreditation to deliver either Youth MHFA or Teen MHFA in a sustainable way. Utilising place-based Instructors captures local knowledge and interests, while also contributing to the efficiency and longevity of the program.
Partnerships have also been developed with local organisations such as North East Tracks Local Learning and Employment Network (NETracksLLEN), North East Support & Action for Youth (NESAY), North East Child & Adolescent Mental Health Service (NECAMHS), Benalla Health, Tomorrow Today Foundation and Victoria Police.
Recognition for positive change
In 2022, Benalla Rural City has been recognised as a Mental Health First Aid Australia Champion Community. The program formally recognises Australian Local Government Areas that demonstrate a commitment to embedding training in an integrated and sustainable way. These communities exemplify positive mental health leadership and best practice in education, training and wrap-around supports.
Benalla’s incredible work has been further recognised by the Department of Education, Suicide Prevention Australia, Victorian Department of Health, and through other impact awards, honours and mentions. While this recognition is a welcomed response to their efforts, the real on-the-ground successes are the ones most worth celebrating.
“We are seeing young people who are more equipped to understand and respond to mental health problems and crises. Anecdotally we have young people and adults reporting less stigma around the topic of mental health. It’s something they are now more comfortable talking about,” says Mayor Bernie Hearn.
“We have spoken with teachers from the participating schools and they are reporting an increase in students who are seeking support for their own mental health or that of a friend. Before the course, there were a lot more students flying under the radar and missing out on the support they might need.”
While Benalla Rural City Council recognises that the need is ongoing, and that there is more work to be done, they are considering these early wins a sign that Live4Life and Mental Health First Aid are a positive fit for their community.
“We have embraced this as an ongoing commitment to creating a safer and more supportive community for young people to grow and thrive.”
To learn more about Benalla Rural City you can visit their website here.
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To learn more about Youth Live4Life you can visit their website here.
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Find out more about the Mental Health First Aid Australia Champion Communities Program here.
If you are interested in recognising your community’s commitment to MHFA training through participation in the program, please contact the Mental Health First Aid Australia Community Engagement Team: firstname.lastname@example.org.