CQUni develops mental health resilience program for youth

Published:02 November 2016

Professor Margaret McAllister has developed a mental health and self-care program for young people titled iCare.

An innovative health program designed by researchers at CQUniversity has engaged with over 1000 high school students across coastal, central and western areas of Central Queensland to develop a solutions-focussed approach to mental health resilience. 

iCARE is a six-week mental health and self-care program for young people, originally developed by mental health nurses including CQUniversity’s Professor Margaret McAllister, and evaluated by school nurses.

The name, iCARE, reflects the idea that young people can and do care about themselves and others, and that even in the face of obstacles and challenges they can learn skills that can help them to care, rather than harm themselves.

The program is explicitly solution and resilience focused – two issues that Professor McAllister is an international expert in, having published two books on these themes. 

“For the facilitators of the program there is a focus on generating discussion amongst young people on abilities and strengths. Instead of focusing on problems and working to eliminate these, a solutions focus aims to develop resilience in young people so that they can develop strategies to buffer stress, find ways around obstacles common in adolescence such as bullying and also share effective coping strategies with peers, thus building strong support networks,” explained Professor McAllister.

Mental health challenges affect one in three people over their lifetime and 75 percent of mental illnesses develop during adolescence. Even though mental health in children and youth is a national priority, more than half of Australian young people do not seek help for mental health problems because they perceive a stigma and lack of helpfulness in health service providers.

According to Professor McAllister, there is evidence that incidences of self-harm, bullying and lack of meaningful social connection are increasing, and the issue is even bleaker within regional communities.

“Young people in regional areas are hospitalised for self-harm at twice the rate of those living in major cities, and they are less likely to present to services for help. This makes youth living in regional and remote areas a particularly vulnerable population in Australian society.”

In order to empower young people in ‘regional’ areas to engage in self-care and care to peers, the iCARE-R mental health promotion program was developed.

The program has provided huge benefits to Queensland school communities. In the present study there are 1000 Year 8 students from Central Queensland state high schools.

“By helping to create a mentally healthy group of regional youth, the program indirectly helps to reduce stress-related problems and build a strong group of young adults who can support each other, cope with adversity and seek help should they need it.

“It also benefits schools who now know that there are strategies in place to prevent mental health problems in their students. We hope that through iCARE we are helping Australia be at the leading edge in mental health promotion.”

The project has not only provided benefits to the students, it has created closer collaboration and partnerships between school teachers and guidance officers and also forged connections between mental health service providers and schools.

The iCARE program has enabled Professor McAllister to engage with Central Queensland schools, principals, teachers, school guidance officers and health care professionals including nurses who are attached to the region’s youth, all working together for the wellbeing of Queensland youth. 

Project partners include CQUniversity, Curtin University, Queensland Department of Education and Training and Queensland Mental Health Commission.

Professor McAllister has recently presented a paper on the initial findings of the project, titled Tackling the issue of self-harm in youth: Findings from a mental health promotion intervention in regional Queensland schools to the 42nd International Mental Health Nursing Conference in Adelaide.

The project is currently in the final data analysis stage and is due for completion in March 2017, although there are plans to extend the reach of iCARE with modifications and customisation to Indigenous Queenslanders and into primary schools.