Wednesday, 4 March 2015
Enhancing Online Safety for Children Bill 2014, Enhancing Online Safety for Children (Consequential Amendments) Bill 2014; Second Reading
How can we create an approach to youth wellbeing that builds resilience, is adolescent centred and has the potential to prevent mental illness later in life? The truth is that right now we do not know much about what is happening in the mental health space. The government is remaining tight-lipped. We do know that mental health organisations across the country are plagued by funding uncertainty, with questions about their longevity and what the future may bring. Some organisations are having trouble retaining staff, and this is particularly the case in rural areas. In some cases, much-valued and much-needed practitioners are packing up and heading back to the city because they just do not know if they will have a job in the months to come and they cannot afford to take the risk to wait to find out. It goes without saying that this uncertainty is crippling, especially in rural areas, where it is difficult enough already to attract and retain much-needed mental health professionals, but where the need is often the greatest.
As I learned during my rural mental health consultation in 2012 and 2013, young people in rural areas particularly often feel isolated and unable to seek help. It may be that their town is small and privacy is hard to come by. Stigma is felt very acutely by young people in those situations. They may lack peers of their age or they may be worried that their peers will find out about their mental ill-health and stigma will rear its ugly head again. I also heard from parents and grandparents who are desperate to get help for their kids and their grandkids in rural areas. With a dearth of drug and alcohol rehabilitation services, there are often few options for those who are battling these issues, which frequently appear as a comorbidity with mental ill health.
We know that the mental health sector is waiting with anxiety to see the report of the National Mental Health Commission's Review of Mental Health Programs and Services. We know that report was provided to this government months ago but has not been released, despite numerous orders by the Senate for it to be laid on the table. We know about the chaotic transition from Medicare Locals to Primary Health Networks that is looming halfway through this year and the confusion—even within the department—about whether and how existing mental health programs which are currently being delivered through Medicare Locals will continue. All of this is contributing to a growing sense of uncertainty in the mental health sector, and the young people who need help are not immune from this.
It is in the best interest of young Australians that we give the funding certainty and security to the mental health organisations which they need for support, and create policy settings which encourage young people to thrive. While cyberbullying is certainly an issue that adolescents across the country are facing in apparently increasing numbers, I believe that we need to think more broadly about wellbeing and what it means to create a society where all young people have access not only to mental health services and support as they grow up but the resources and the assistance to feel great and optimistic about who they are and what the future holds for them. That encompasses a whole range of other policy settings: policy settings about assistance with transitioning from school to work; it is about assisting young people to find work; and it is about assisting those young people who are unable to fit within the mainstream schooling system and who need additional support—the sort of assistance that organisations like Youth Connections were doing such a wonderful job in providing before their funding was cut.
I believe that we also need to consider carefully the sort of modelling that our leaders and our institutions are offering to the young people growing up today. We see increasingly 'uncivil' interactions and debates; we see these on television, in films, in this parliament and in the public arena, and—dare I say it, fresh in my mind as it is—we see the way that people comport themselves in Senate committees. Sometimes it seems that there is now 'open slather' on toxic and abusive language that is sanctioned by the very people who are then deploring the fact that there is bullying happening to our young people. We have a responsibility to model the sort of behaviour that we say is appropriate in this society. Too often, I think that the leaders and those who have power in this country—whether they are shock jocks, media commentators or politicians—actually fail in that duty. And then we have the temerity to criticise young people for modelling what they see their elders do.
I think this whole discussion and concern about cyberbullying and bullying generally in what is often an increasingly toxic debate in our society is a reason to pause to think—to think about what sort of society we want to promote. What sort of resilience and wellbeing do we want to promote among our young people? They are our future and it is so important that they feel valued—that we create a setting where young people can feel proud to be who they are in their own unique identities. It should be that they are not criticised, that they are not undermined and that they are not devalued—whatever that is: wherever they live, whatever their background and whatever their identity.
In considering this Enhancing Online Safety for Children Bill, I encourage my colleagues in this Senate to consider that this is an opportunity to think more broadly about what it is that is giving rise to this cyberbullying and what it is that can help protect and promote the wellbeing of our precious resource, our young people in Australia.