Written by Lil Barac-Macey, Founder and Managing Director, Q Social Impact
Australia’s youth, women working full-time, the under-employed and recent migrant arrivals are most susceptible to becoming part of the “new vulnerable” cohort on a mental, emotional, physical and financial level, according to Good Shepherd’s recent report, Understanding the impacts of COVID-19 on vulnerable Australians. Many of these people are now experiencing hardship and economic instability for the first time as a direct result of the pandemic and associated lockdowns, raising concerns of increased inequalities in our community.
Positively, the report encourages a collaborative response from all sectors (business, government and community organisations) to work together to reduce the impact of COVID-19 on these vulnerable groups. This article focuses on the challenges and opportunities relating to young Australians specifically, and how businesses can help to deliver a preventative approach to mental health by adopting a shared value business methodology.
Youth and Mental Health
Against the backdrop of the pandemic, mental ill-health and its effect on youth continues. The Good Shepherd report is timely, given the recent findings of the Royal Commission into Victoria’s Mental Health System, which is now advocating for primary prevention as a key tool to reduce instances of mental illness in youth.
Further, from an economic perspective, the case for addressing mental health and wellbeing could not be stronger, with the impacts of mental ill-health in the workplace estimated to cost AUD $17 billion per annum. A key challenge then for business is finding the best way to support the government’s focus on youth and mental health.
Somewhat contrary to popular opinion about youth and their technology preferences, the Good Shepherd report found that mobile and video-conferencing hotlines were not sufficient mental health tools for young people during lockdown, and that this audience switched off from accessing online mental health services in this way.
Good Shepherd recommends additional innovation and research is needed to address the gap in current modes of service delivery and young people’s preferred methods of communication. Coupled with the Royal Commission’s recommendation to focus on primary prevention in youth mental health, this suggests businesses would be well advised to explore the gaps that exist in mental health service delivery for a youth audience.
Flipping the Mental Health Model
Bucking the trend of this perceived service delivery gap is the Big Feels Club, a grassroots mental health organisation founded by two peer support workers, Honor Eastly and Graham Panther (who have both experienced mental ill-health and utilised the services themselves).
The two founders openly share their own difficult mental health journeys, acknowledging the vulnerability that comes with mental ill-health and how they have sought to overcome their fears. They speak to their audience from a lived experience perspective; and their authentic messaging has crystallised into a 6,000-strong membership over the past year. Their youth audience tune in to the founders’ podcasts, partake in group discussions, join peer-to-peer support sessions, and are invited to go along to real-life meet-ups. This fresh approach to service delivery literally flips the mental health model by placing peer support front and centre, demonstrating to us that talking about life’s ‘big feels’ can in fact be done in an innovative and engaging manner that resonates with youths.
In New Zealand for example, peer support services can be accessed through GP clinics and emerging evidence shows that peer support services are less costly, yet just as effective as mainstream mental health support networks. In Australia, the federal government has yet to go down this path, instead opting to double the number of free counselling sessions through Medicare. The latter option does little to decrease the burden on already overworked psychologists and counselling professionals. Furthermore, an extra 10 sessions with a professional will not always provide the mental health support young adults are searching for, as Good Shepherd discovered.
Opportunities for Purpose-orientated Businesses
The Shared Value Project’s report Creating Shared Value: The Business Imperative to Improve Mental Health in Australia, a collaboration with AIA, IAG, NAB, SuperFriend and PwC Australia, cements the idea that purpose-led businesses are well-placed to support young people in redesigning what mental health services could look like. Businesses that place purpose at the heart of what they do have values that support positive social impact; they focus on customer experience and design products and services that address a market need or want, as well as creating a social impact. They also tend to have greater access to capital than businesses without a stated purpose.
The opportunity exists for businesses in the health sector to support new models of care via a shared value approach. This can be through R&D investment to enable existing peer support networks to thrive at scale; or through reconceiving the business’ own products or services to develop peer support networks that sit alongside professional counselling services for young adults to opt into. The private health insurance sector is well positioned to pursue such an opportunity.
The societal impact of collaboration between business and youth enterprises cannot be underestimated: evidence shows that employment is linked to an improved sense of wellbeing, as well as reduced levels of depression and anxiety. Incubating grassroots mental health initiatives like the Big Feels Club in cities and regions across Australia could help to create youth employment opportunities via innovative solutions such as peer support networks, whilst also creating opportunities for business to better engage with, provide support to, and increase equality for, our young people.
our collective lesson from 2021 is cultivating a shared value mindset, where collaboration
and innovation can be deployed at scale to resolve societal issues, in turn
supporting our most vulnerable cohorts and reducing inequalities in society.
 VicHealth, Submission to the RCVMHS: SUB.0002.0029.0238, 2019, p. 2.
 National Mental Health Commission, The Economic Case for Investing in Mental Health Prevention: Summary, 2018, p. 4.
 Productivity Commission, Mental Health Inquiry Report, 2020, Volume 2, p. 9.
 Good Shepherd, Understanding the impacts of COVID-19 on vulnerable Australians, 2021. A large proportion of young people reported barriers to digital access and /or limited privacy when utilising these technologies whilst in lockdown.
 Topsfield, J., ‘‘I thought there was no one else like me’: Push to build peer support into mental health overhaul’, The Age, 1 March 2021 https://www.theage.com.au/national/victoria/i-thought-there-was-no-one-else-like-me-push-to-build-peer-support-into-mental-health-overhaul-20210301-p576rt.html
 Panther, G., ‘I’ve set up plenty of mental health services. Here’s why I wouldn’t use any of them’ The Spin Off, 2017 https://thespinoff.co.nz/society/26-08-2017/ive-set-up-plenty-of-mental-health-services-heres-why-i-wouldnt-use-any-of-them/
 Services Australia www.servicesaustralia.gov.au/individuals/subjects/whats-covered-medicare/mental-health-care-and-medicare
 Shared Value Project, Creating Shared Value: The business imperative to improve mental health in Australia, Shared Value Project and PwC, October 2019
 Modini, M. and others, ‘The Mental Health Benefits of Employment: Results of a Systematic Meta-Review’, Australasian Psychiatry ,2016, 24.4, 331–36