There’s always someone to talk to

There’s always someone to talk to

An interview with Brian Lowe at Youthline Otago

Youthline focuses on supporting young people between the ages of 13 and 26. Brian Lowe is the Youthline Otago manager. He and one administration person are the only staff members, neither of which are employed full time. Lowe has volunteered since his university days and has always been drawn to helping this age group.

He says: “There’s so much happening in the teenage years – mental formation, physical change, social change, all that sort of stuff. It’s a time where you can get involved with adolescents and young adults and effect change.”

For such a worthy cause, Youthline Otago can’t take its funding for granted. “I liken fundraising to being on a treadmill – There’s no end, you have to keep going,” says Lowe. Last year the entire organisation ran on around $90 thousand. This year, Brian has managed to get that up to $100 thousand, but only through masses of hard work. Around a quarter of Youthline’s funding is from the Ministry of Social Development. It currently gets renewed year by year, and Lowe says, “there’s always this period of are we going to get it, or are we not?” The people he works with from the government are strongly supportive of the work Youthline does, but they have constraints to work around. Government priorities and spending focuses change. The rest of the money comes from fundraising and donations, which Lowe says he handles mostly on his own, as the manager.

However, just because things are tight, it doesn’t mean the needs of young people go away. In fact, Lowe says they’re “finding the opposite.” The demand for Youthline Otago’s services goes up by around 10 percent each year. “The need has been skyrocketing. It’s the same for all the non-profit organisations.” A few years ago, around 15,000 people were using the service nationally. Last year it exceeded 26,000. Youthline Otago is 20 percent of the national helpline, so is important to a massive number of people. 

The growing need for Youthline Otago’s services may seem ominous, but it could be a sign that our society is improving. Lowe says “there’s a lot of work going on to destigmatise mental health. There’s a lot of education.” This means more people are realising that they need to reach out for help and that it’s ok to do that. People are becoming more accepting of minority groups, such as people of minority gender identities and sexualities. Younger people are feeling more comfortable discussing these things if they feel they need to, rather than hiding them. Still, Lowe says, “It’s not easy, if you are thinking you are gay, or lesbian, or transgender.” He says young people are seeking support to understand who they are, and how to “come out” if they need to. “We know the statistics with groups like transgender people – horrific stats regarding suicide risk, self harming behaviours, depression, that sort of stuff.”

“That’s working – the destigmatising of [different sexualities,] mental health issues, domestic violence, etc. is a positive – but it does mean that they’re using services like ours, Rape Crisis, Woman’s Refuge and others, which is also good, except our numbers are going through the roof and we have to cope with that.” But the increase in people reaching out to these services also reflects a rise in mental health issues, which Lowe says is a worldwide phenomenon. Presentations and diagnosis of anxiety disorder and depression are steadily increasing in New Zealand. 

Lowe isn’t sure why this is, he says, “it’s one of those things people are studying and no one’s got the definitive answer.” He believes young people are feeling more and more pressure in our society for a number of reasons that didn’t exist in the same way ten of fifteen years ago. Lowe says he recently did a workshop with a group of 14-year-olds. He says “when I was 14, I wouldn’t have known about American politics. Now 14-year-olds are worrying about Trump and his impact on the world.” Lowe was training the day Trump got elected, and there was a girl there who was so upset they had to stop the workshop. “We’re in New Zealand. They’re worried that WWIII is going to break out.” Young people are also worried about the TPPA, global warming, pollution, and environmental issues. The number of boys with eating disorders is starting to match girls. “They all think they have to be muscular and have a six-pack. They think they need to see their abs, so if there’s fat, there’s something wrong.” Girls and women have felt this same pressure for a lot longer. Lowe says “We accentuate these things through the media. We are putting so much pressure on young people now, but we haven’t matched it with building their resilience and well-being.”

Global and local worries that affect young people directly are, of course, also sources of stress. People go to university with no job guarantee, working on short-term and zero-hour contracts. “It’s just a shambles. When I was young, I was virtually guaranteed a job. There is not one high school kid now who is guaranteed a job or even knows what that job might look like. The world has changed.”

So much of what we hear about the younger generation is that they don’t care about anything, they’re selfish and self-obsessed. This is at odds with Lowe’s stories about young people being very worried about global concerns, social, and environmental issues. “They’re being made to care about these international and local problems that, when you’re 14, you can’t do a lot to change.” Lowe believes our younger generation is the most socially aware generation that has ever existed. But while it’s great that they’re worried about the planet and its people, their compassion could be making them unhappy.

The generation gap shows in the responses from older people to the problems of the young. “You get comments like ‘They just need to harden up’, ‘When I was a kid, we just had to suck it and put up with it’ and ‘What’s a bit of bullying?’ Actually, it’s not that simple.”

Other things Lowe says older people have trouble getting their heads around include issues of sexual identity and gender, and body image. “You talk about eating disorders and they say ‘we were taught to eat what was on our plate’. It’s not that simple, I’m afraid. It isn’t going to work, in fact we know it doesn’t work.” These people have fundamental issues around who they are and their self-worth, and it comes out as an eating disorder. We have to look at the causes. 

A lot of these new worries are influenced by social media, which Lowe thinks has both positive and negative effects on the wellbeing of youth. “The bullying that can take place through social media is horrific.” He says the trend of people making their lives look better than they are makes users feel insecure, but there is also a new trend where young people disclose more negative stuff online too. “That doesn’t help either. It also triggers people who are in that same state.” Lowe says that there is a whole generation of people sleeping with their smartphones under their pillows so they don’t miss a text. “So I’d add that we also have a sleep deprived generation.” When it comes to the basic elements of human wellbeing – sleeping well, eating well, exercising, and building a healthy social life, “we’re throwing a lot of that out the window. We’ve got a generation who understand they’re part of a global society, but they don’t know which local community they belong to anymore and how they fit and belong within that community.”

At university, young people face a new set of challenges that the Youthline Helpline service hears a lot about. This year, for the first time, Youthline Otago did a half-day’s training at Cumberland and Aquinus colleges to help the RAs support people with mental distress, typically anxiety and depression. Lowe says that typically the RAs don’t know what to do because they’re not at all trained to deal with people with mental illness. The pilot training sessions covered what to do if a student is struggling with mental distress or illness: “how to address it, how to destigmatise it, how to support people, and how far you can go before you need to reach out for help.” They covered depression, anxiety, and suicide risk. 

Lowe gave an example of someone Youthline had supported who had moved into a college but didn’t have any close friends. They decided to be openly gay, and rather than supporting them, the people around them made their life hell. They were bullied on social media and in the college, and physically assaulted. “Where does a person like this go? They don’t know anyone, they’re in a new town, at a new uni, they’re struggling with their own sexual identity and have been brave enough to come out with it, and the reaction has been appalling, to the point where people they don’t even know are having a go at them, because of course it’s going round the halls.” They called the helpline and the volunteer there gave them support, affirmed what they’d done, and referred them to people who would be positive about them and their experience. A lot of people think reporting that behaviour to the authorities will make it worse, “because you’ll be a nark. But it’s not ok. Everyone has to stand up for it. Who do you know who is supportive? Can you identify people who are standing up for you? Can you seek their support, get them to help you out?”

The Youthline Helpline aids students working through stress and other issues. Many times this enables them to stay in their studies and their work, and can build on their own resilience and wellbeing. For example, “Some students come here with expectations that their parents impose on them. We get students who are supposed to be doctors, but they’re not getting the grades. The pressure that puts on a young person who has to go home and say ‘I’m not getting the grades, I’m a write-off’ – you know.” Many people come to university and don’t know anyone. 

Youthline Otago runs training sessions twice a year for new volunteers. The training goes for eight days and is intense. “We’ve got to make sure people are able to withstand the pressure and have sufficient resilience to support our clients.” Volunteers can hear distressing stories in their time at Youthline Otago.

Though you may be picturing people waiting by a phone on the wall, the most common form of contact to Youthline Otago is by text message. Instant messenger is well on the way to being number two, followed by phone and email. I had assumed hearing someone’s voice would be a big part of the service, but Brian says “There’s a whole generation of people who would never think of ringing us, and, in fact, if they did ring, they wouldn’t know what to say.” The trainees are kept busy. “New volunteers sometimes turn up with a book, but I don’t think they get through too many chapters of it.”

Youthline Otago also offers counselling and psychotherapy services to young people. They do about 500 sessions a year. It gives the 18-26 year olds the ability to find such services when they otherwise couldn’t afford it. Student Health funds six counselling sessions for students, but after that your counsellor has to apply for extra sessions for you. “You’ve got to be really traumatised to get access to ACC. So where do you go if you’re depressed and you’ve used up your sessions, and you can’t afford $100 an hour? These people are not mildly depressed or anxious. These people are having real problems. So I think from a funding or capacity situation, I think we’re failing young people.”

The Youthline Helpline often refers people to other agencies according to their needs to get appropriate support, for example, doctors, OUSA Queer Support, counselling, Rape Crisis, mental health services, family planning, the police, and family supports, including parents and siblings. Sometimes the Helpline counsellors will be the first person a client will talk to and tell them their problems. 

Some people come back over and over again. “Say if someone has depression, they could be using our service for over a year until they’re strong enough to get past that period. When people are distressed, they’re often really lonely. Having someone to talk to can be a big first step to progress.” Youthline Helpline offers a confidential and non-judgmental space; some people just want someone to listen to them.

Lowe put in a submission on the Student Health review last year to OUSA president Laura Harris. “We believed that it’s not working effectively – we’ve got students coming here because they’ve used their sessions up or the waiting time is too long. They’re your students; you need to look after them. I think the system hasn’t really caught up with this generation. I think there’s a reality we don’t understand.”

Lowe says that with the right support and the right approach, people are incredibly resilient. They are mostly optimistic and hopeful; they want the best for themselves and their family and whanau. “The depressing bit is the funding issue – constantly being on this treadmill, having to raise money, having to prove that the need is there. It is a tiny amount of money. I’m chasing my tail every week to keep it up. We’re helping support people and we’re saving people’s lives through interventions and things like that. Then we have to justify why people would continue to fund us. It’s frustrating.”

In an exciting new collaboration, Youthline Otago and OUSA Student Support Services are looking to set up a counselling space for university students to support those who choose to approach OUSA Student Support Services for assistance. This would enhance OUSA Support Services’ ability to work with students and give another option for students to be able to choose from, thus enhancing the ability to provide a better ‘wrap around’ approach for clients. Both organisations hope to have this up and running in the next few weeks.

This article first appeared in Issue 10, 2017.
Posted 11:49am Sunday 30th April 2017 by Lucy Hunter.