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Creating better, safer mental health support starts with listening to young people

6 August 2020 at 8:00 am
Kirra-Alyssa Horley
Coping and managing your mental health is hard enough without the additional barriers created by systems and services, writes Kirra-Alyssa Horley reflecting on her own experience as a young person in the mental health system.

Kirra-Alyssa Horley | 6 August 2020 at 8:00 am


Creating better, safer mental health support starts with listening to young people
6 August 2020 at 8:00 am

Coping and managing your mental health is hard enough without the additional barriers created by systems and services, writes Kirra-Alyssa Horley reflecting on her own experience as a young person in the mental health system.

Content warning: This is my real story and contains references to mental ill health and suicidality. 

If this brings anything up for you please reach out to your support system and take care of yourself. 


“Light thinks it travels faster than anything but it is wrong. No matter how fast light travels, it finds the darkness has always got there first, and is waiting for it.” – Terry Pratchett. 


The current mental health service system is hurting and damaging children and young people. With the Royal Commission into Victoria’s Mental Health System, I hope that changes will be made to save children and young people’s lives. 

I have been involved in this system for eight years, since I was 12, and have reflected a lot on my experiences during this time. I have had a lot of mental health professionals that have supported me and want to acknowledge the work that they have done for me and the community. 

This article is from my perspective as a child and now a young person. I don’t want to take away from the work that the mental health professionals are doing but I believe it’s important to challenge how they can be doing better. At the end of the day they are here to support us as children and young people who are experiencing mental ill health and it’s not our responsibility to see the challenges that they are facing. I believe that to support the clients, mental health professionals need to be supported to do their job. While I don’t know what support they need, I do know what support would have helped me.

Coping and managing our mental health is hard enough without the additional barriers created by systems and services. The first time I managed to tell someone I didn’t want to be here anymore was when I was 12 and chatting to my school counsellor. Without telling me, he went and called my mum. He did it without letting me know this was something he had to do. She was so angry and confused with me when I arrived home that day. I felt like he went behind my back and I could not tell anyone how I was feeling because I kept getting in trouble for saying it. 

It is so important to build trust with children and young people – and not break it. You can do this by being transparent with the person sitting in front of you. When a mental health professional decides they need to call someone about their client they should first and foremost tell the client. Help them understand why, what is going to happen, and give the child or young person a choice in the situation – like who you can call and what you can say. It is also important to provide both the family and child with information on the right support services, so that the situation doesn’t get worse. I believe it’s important to educate children and young people on tricky areas like mental ill health and for them to know it’s not their fault and they haven’t done the wrong thing by saying how they feel. This is especially important for children and young people where they might be reaching out for support for the first time. No one should feel ashamed for seeking help. 

At 19, I could not keep myself safe and needed to go to hospital. The adolescent unit at the Psychiatric Assessment and Planning Units and the Adult In-Patient Units were full. There were no crisis beds in all the hospitals around me. I had the option to sleep in the waiting room or go home and risk my life. That was heartbreaking for me. I had been fighting for so long to keep myself alive and I thought I was doing the right thing by asking for help, but I felt rejected. To even wait one night for a bed is putting people’s lives at risk; I ended up having to wait four. We need to have enough beds for the children, young people, and adults who need them, when they need them.

When I finally had access to a crisis bed in the Adult In-Patient Unit, I was really scared. This is meant to be a place where you can focus on healing and have safety from yourself and others. I was the youngest person there and within 10 minutes of arriving, there were so many old men glaring at me, teasing me that I shouldn’t be there, asking what I did to get in there, and making disgusting comments on my body. I talked to the nurse and then was put in the gender sensitive section of the ward. My room was locked away and I had a separate TV room but to get food, a hot drink, or if I wanted to get to the tiny outside section and basketball ring I had to go into the common area, where I didn’t feel safe. 

There was nothing to do. I couldn’t do colouring because the pencils were blunt and the textas didn’t work. There were no activities, sessions, or things to do. The nurses were all in their glass cabinet room locked away and I would have to knock on the glass to ask a question – a lot of the time I’d get ignored. I felt like I was just bothering them, they were too busy for me and I couldn’t talk to them. 

Don’t even get me started on the food. I have always struggled with my eating but every time I went into the psych ward I didn’t eat. The food was so yucky and they didn’t explain to me I could get a choice of what I wanted to eat. I felt like they didn’t care if I didn’t eat.

I wanted to feel safe and supported by people who cared, and learn how to cope in healthy ways. Although the ward was better than nothing, It wasn’t enough.

Even though this is my story, I know my story represents many young people’s experiences. I am now a lived experience consultant with Berry Street’s Y-Change Initiative, and I support other young people to help navigate the mental health system and advocate for change.

We need to listen to the people within the mental health system to make these systems and services work effectively. We need to co-design psychiatric wards in a meaningful partnership with diverse people with lived experiences of mental ill health. 

If I could design an inpatient unit it would be specifically for young people. It would have peer workers, therapy animals, youth workers, art therapists, and wrap around supports for the patients. It would be a place where you could be yourself. It would look green with plants and gardens, and have heaps of colours and art on the walls. There would be optional classes like kickboxing, yoga, and pottery. 

It would feel safe. And it would save children and young people’s lives.


If you, or someone you know, needs help call Lifeline on 13 11 14. 

This article is part of a monthly series, Youth Matters, a collaboration between Youth Affairs Council Victoria and Pro Bono Australia to inject the voices of young people into the social change sector.

See also: Why youth services must be accessible

Kirra-Alyssa Horley  |  @ProBonoNews

Kirra-Alyssa Horley is a lived experienced consultant at Berry Street's Y-Change initiative.


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