Creating connections for youth mental health

How technology, support and community can help improve the mental wellbeing of young people.

Written by Nicole Gibson

For youth mental health advocate Nicole Gibson, fostering meaningful connections is the key to better wellbeing. After overcoming mental health challenges as a teenager, Nicole decided to channel her energy into helping other young people and reduce the stigma around mental health, body image and self-esteem issues.

In 2011, she established the Rogue & Rouge Foundation, which delivers mental health programs through schools and community groups all around Australia, opening up much-needed discussion in a safe, engaging and supportive environment.

Recently appointed to the board of Smiling Mind, Nicole had a chat with us about her ideas for improving youth mental health.

What do you hope to bring to your new role on the board of Smiling Mind?

I think Smiling Mind has incredible potential to impact the next generation of young people. My background is in working with young people and mental health, and I’ve seen how mindfulness and meditation can impact the wellbeing of young people. I think people have an idea that meditation is about thinking about stuff under a tree. Smiling Mind has a unique way of bringing meditation to the table, and it can be really effective tool to engage people in that practice.

I’m a very creative person and I see myself having a bit of a different perspective on things, so I’d really love to contribute to finding ways of engaging more with the youth market in a way that’s relevant to them.

"Young people don’t often get offered that space and opportunity to be vulnerable."

What keeps you personally motivated to help drive mental health change in Australia?

Lots of things! Mental health is one of the biggest issues in Australia today and we need to look at ways of prevention. At the moment we have a system that is very reactive – we wait until someone is at a point of crisis, and then we’ll intervene. Not only is that costly, it’s ineffective.

Personally I was motivated after I struggled with an eating disorder growing up. I feel like I lost a lot of my teenage years to that disorder. I was in a fortunate position in that my family could afford good treatment, which a lot of families can’t. And yet I still didn’t feel that this clinical approach was what I needed at that time – I felt like I needed community and support. I was going to a psychologist’s office for an hour a week, and then back into a community of people who didn’t understand.

When I started Rogue & Rouge, my team and I went on a national tour and consulted with almost 70,000 young people across the country about what they thought about mental health issues. And time and time again, this word ‘connection’ kept coming to the table. It’s that human need for belonging.

Do you think being a young person yourself helps you connect better with the people you’re working with?

For sure. I’m 22 now, and I started when I was 18. It meant that as a facilitator I could be more like a big sister or a friend, and it made it easier for young people to let down their guards a bit. Young people don’t often get offered that space and opportunity to be vulnerable, and we have young people come up to us in programs and saying, “I’ve never told anyone this before.” It helps give them that connection.

What role do you see technology playing in the future of youth mental health?

I think it’s awesome. The reality is technology is not the enemy, it’s how we use it. Technology is actually a very powerful tool. I do a lot of work in very remote and rural parts of Australia, and technology is one of the only ways these guys can access services.

Apps like Smiling Mind are establishing a standard of how I think technology should be used – education and positive influence. You can’t send 5000 meditation teachers out to a remote community, so what an amazing way to reach and connect so many people through a common means.

What are some things you do in your own life to stay mentally well?

Work life balance is really important. It’s hard when you want to do everything, and you only have so much time. I feel like I’ve had to learn to say no to make that time to come back to me. Exercise is really important for me, as well as meditation, and cooking for myself as much as I can – I don’t feel well when I’m eating out all the time.

For me it just comes back to hose simple things: do you have loving relationships in your life? Are you getting enough exercise? Are you eating well? Are you feeling passionate about what you’re doing every day? If I can keep those things in check, I usually feel pretty good.

Visit rogueandrouge.org.au and smilingmind.com.au for more on meditation and mental health.

If you need help, please call the beyondblue Support Service on 1300 22 4636 or email or chat online at beyondblue.org.au

Written by Nicole Gibson

Nicole Gibson is the founder of Rouge and Rouge Foundation. She was a finalist for Young Australian of the Year in 2014 and was the youngest ever commissioner appointed onto the National Mental Health Commission.

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