Giving youth a better chance

12 Nov 2012

Author: Brad Howarth



Growing up in a small South Australian country town, a young Jane Burns was oblivious to the extent of the youth mental health and suicide crisis unfolding around her. Now she is at the forefront of efforts to harness digital technology to combat the leading cause of death among young Australians.
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It was during her undergraduate studies in mental health that Burns’ awareness and interest in youth issues began to grow. She went on to hold an academically prestigious National Health and Medical Research Council Scholarship, and then Fellowship, and completed her PhD at just 25. At the same time, youth suicide rates in Australia were nearing their peak, and Burns realised that she did not wish to remain in academia.

Since then she has been on the frontline of the fight against suicide, which remains the primary cause of death among Australians aged 14 to 25. One in four young people experience mental illness, and three-quarters of mental illness and substance abuse starts before the age of 25.

She is an Associate Professor and the CEO of the Young and Well Cooperative Research Centre, a $100 million Australian-based international research institute that works in partnership with young people, researchers, technologists, policy makers and service providers.

“The big-picture goal is to understand how we can use technologies to improve the mental health of young Australians,” Burns says. “And what that equates to, is how do we create an Australia that ensures that every young person is healthy, safe and resilient?”

Where the Young and Well CRC’s approach to tackling mental health differs from other organisations, is in its dedication to using technology as a means of reaching young people. Burns believes that the combination of technology and the capacity of young people themselves to motivate and activate communities can be a game changer.

“We need to think about service provision for our most vulnerable populations and I think technology can provide a solution,” Burns says. “Realistically we do not have the number of professionals we need on the ground.”

The work of the Young and Well CRC will take internationally recognised research and create tools, applications and resources that ensure that support for young people is readily available. The multimillion-dollar projects position young people as experts working alongside technologists and researchers, with the goal of creating products that young people will actually use. Examples include a Wellbeing Centre, a Virtual Clinic and a Q&A Linkage service, which if successful will be made available to all schools, universities and workplaces around Australia.

The twin issues of young people and mental health feature prominently throughout Burns’ career, which includes four years in a senior role during the formation of the national depression initiative beyondblue, and five years with the Inspire Foundation, which is the organisation behind the online youth mental health service

It was through her initial work with the Inspire Foundation that she saw the potential of the internet to connect with young people in rural communities. And it was that organisation’s chairman, South Australian technology entrepreneur Marty Gauvin, who convinced Burns to lead the bid that resulted in the Young and Well CRC’s establishment under the Australian Government’s Cooperative Research Centres program.

Gauvin says he has never seen anyone take an idea and run with it like Burns has.

“One day we had a conversation about starting a CRC for young people,” Gauvin says, “within a few months the consortium was wrapped up with 62 partners and a governance structure that places young people alongside the board as equal contributors. She is a most remarkable collaborator who is building a tremendous legacy.”

The consortium partners backed Burns with $6.9 million in cash and $80 million in-kind support to help her to make a case to the Government for funding.

Burns says her first instinct was to decline to lead the bid when Gauvin approached her, as she was about to go on maternity leave with her second child. She agreed to conduct a feasibility study, expecting that she would report back to the Inspire Foundation Board that the sector would never be committed or engaged enough to share a collective vision. She admits she got it wrong.

Burns’ passion has become personal, as she thinks about the difference the Young and Well CRC can make to her three children, especially for her eldest child who has both autism and Down syndrome.

“In seven years’ time when he hits his teenage years, my vision is that he is a young man who will feel connected and valued regardless of his disability,” Burns says. “My best-case scenario is that the Young and Well CRC has created online communities and resources that respect the ability of all young people and encourage acceptance of diversity and difference in all its shapes and forms.”

For her two other children – and for all children – Burns’ hope is that the research of the Young and Well CRC will mean they are better able to manage their online experience, are safe, and use the internet in a meaningful way to connect and play a vibrant role in society.

Ultimately Burns says the importance of technology and the need for strong digital literacy, especially with the introduction of faster internet means the Young and Well CRC will play an important role in shaping all society.

“If we can create opportunities and think about the positives while reducing the risks, then we’ve got something that could fundamentally change the way we as a society engage and connect,” Burns says.