Regional youth, mental health and that marriage equality vote

headspace CEO Jason Trethowan. Photo headspace

headspace CEO Jason Trethowan. Photo headspace

Jason Trethowan, CEO, headspace

It was in regional Victoria last month where I saw first-hand why Australia’s vote to legalise marriage equality must happen.

During a visit to our newest headspace centre, I spent time with a woman who supports and works with young LGBTIQA+ people struggling with their mental health and wellbeing.

When I discuss marriage equality, I look to the statistics.

How – on average – one in five young people who come into a headspace centre identify as LGBTIQA+.

But for her, she sees the faces, she hears the stories and she experiences the reality that many LGBTIQA+ young people struggle with, and that the current environment is making that struggle even harder.

The mere existence of her job is evidence of a problem that needs to be addressed, because the current inequality is affecting too many young people. The impact is wide too, as family and friends seek information and services through headspace centres to work out strategies to support young LGBTIQA+ people they are concerned for.

As the National Youth Mental Health Foundation, headspace is 100 per cent supportive of the ‘YES’ vote. We have a history of proof as to why such a vital social measure needs to be taken.

Over the past 11 years headspace has helped more than 355,000 young people of various ages, backgrounds, genders and sexual identities.

What we’ve seen over that time, and what the research has shown, is that young LGBTIQA+ Australians have a higher risk of having, or developing, mental health issues including depression, anxiety, and substance use.

This higher risk is related to homophobic abuse, difficulties associated with disclosure, community attitudes and discrimination.

Young people already have enough to contend with when growing up. To pile on issues such as stigma around their identity, and inequality in the eyes of the law, these are challenges young people do not need to face.

We also see the flow on impacts from young people dropping out of school, taking days out of work, breakdown in key family relationships, withdrawal and feeling a deep sense of loneliness and isolation.

headspace centres, other health care settings, and community organisations are then in response and crisis mode to help young people and families manage their levels of distress. There is not only a personal cost but a social and economic impact for the country.

headspace clinicians who work at our online and over-the-phone counselling service, eheadspace, tell me of the worrying trends that LGBTIQA+ young people are reporting.

They feel that other people are deciding if they deserve to have their relationships recognised. They report feeling like a ‘freak’ and that others see them as worthless, and without the right for recognition. Some have even said they feel hated by fellow Australians and that they feel some people would rather LGBTIQA+ young people weren’t here.

These fears should not exist.

Earlier this year, young people at headspace introduced a peer-led initiative created from a recognised need in communities across Australia.

Qheadspace, is on online anonymous support group chat, led by trained ‘queer peers’ to support young LGBTIQA+ people going through a tough time.

In the latest group chat many people sought advice and support around the marriage equality debate and what it meant for them, their friends and families.

The demand for Qheadspace has been so high that we’ve had to increase the number of group chats from monthly to fortnightly.

In recent weeks headspace has also come together with other youth mental health organisations in the #mindthefacts campaign. We are pooling our resources, knowledge and expertise to fight for the ‘YES’ vote – based on facts. We are encouraging Australians to carefully consider the real and devastating links between youth suicide rates and discrimination against young LGBTIQ people when they cast their vote. A ‘YES’ vote for marriage equality could see as many as 3000 youth suicide attempts be averted each year. It’s a staggering fact.

And in an effort to quell some of the negative sentiment that is swirling around this debate, headspace and the #mindthefacts campaign have today released an important – and positive – video reminder that young LGBTIQA+ people need to prioritise looking after themselves.

Developed by a team of headspace youth advocates, the video offers four, simple but essential messages. I recommend that everyone take a look, it can be found at

For young people, families and friends directly affected by the current confronting and confusing public debate, the outcome of the postal vote will be a life-changing moment. A ‘yes’ vote, which then hopefully translates later in the year to a change in the law, will be a fresh start. It is not just now, but also for future generations of young Australians, so they won’t experience the same health impacts.

Perhaps once and for all this human rights and equality issue for so many Australians can be dealt with. Just like our friends in Ireland found two years after they legalised same sex marriage – ‘what happens? Two people get married and the world continues’.

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