Alumni

Student mental health projects help thousands of young Tasmanians

When Matthew Etherington and Olivia Fleming were announced as the 2017 recipients of the University’s Sandy Duncanson Social Justice Bursary, the $2,500 grant they each received kick-started two rather unique projects – a Mental Health First Aid course for University students, and a Brazilian ju-jitsu course aimed at empowering teenage girls.

Matthew Etherington and Olivia Fleming

Olivia, 23, founded the Little Help Project (LHP) Tasmania in 2014 with the goal to reduce psychological distress in high-school students.

Since its inception, the project, run by 25 volunteers all younger than 25, has helped a remarkable 8,000 students within Hobart schools through conducting a number of mental health workshops and programs – aimed at empowering students with positive psychological and social skills.

“I’d always noticed the gap in mental-health education, so in my last year of college founded LHP – a volunteer group run by young people, for young people. Our intention is to provide interventions within schools that create protective factors against suicide and mental health issues, such as boosting resilience and self-esteem,” she said.

Receiving the $2,500 grant this year enabled the second-year Bachelor of Medicine and Surgery student to add a new initiative, LHP! Let’s Roll, to her already impressive list of programs.

LHP! Let’s Roll provides free weekly Brazilian ju-jitsu (BJJ) classes to young women aged 12 to 16 who have experienced challenging life circumstances, such as social isolation or trauma, or come from a low socio-economic background. The program covers the cost of their transport, uniforms and membership fees.

Olivia was inspired to start it after taking up the sport drastically boosted her self-esteem and confidence.

“A couple of years ago I started BJJ and it improved my body image and resilience, which is so important for young women. In BJJ you are failing every step of the way, and you learn how to overcome that. The classes give these young women a sense of self-worth and confidence, and the chance to work in a team. It also encompasses goal-setting, behavioural strategies and planning for the future,” she said.

Her vision to change the lives of vulnerable young women through martial arts proved to be effective.

“Girls [who have participated in the program] have returned to school, reduced their anger and behavioural issues and also had a lot of fun in the process. One girl, who started the program acting defensively, completed the course and went back to high school. Now she returns each week, puts her ghi (BJJ uniform) on and has a laugh during class. She said to me recently, ‘I feel part of the team now’.”

The idea for a Mental Health First Aid course came naturally to Matthew, 22, a volunteer with several University welfare groups, in addition to the Red Cross, The Big Issue and the Tasmanian Youth Government Association.

“A key concern for these social justice groups is the welfare of students, particularly from a mental-health perspective – so it was all about reacting to what students really need,” he said.

“At a national level these organisations use mental-health training to enhance the welfare of everyone who comes into contact with them, and my goal was to bring this to the student level.”

The third-year Bachelor of Arts and Laws student launched the Mental Health First Aid training course, run by a Lifeline community educator in September – successfully training 125 University of Tasmania students with the skills to help in the case of a mental-health emergency.

“In a society where only 35 per cent of people seek professional help for mental-health issues, training such as this is critical. The program’s goal was to improve the resilience of the student community by placing student leaders on campus with the skills to assist in difficult situations. Many people don’t feel comfortable talking about mental health or know how to help in a time of crisis, and this training gives them the tools and a plan to provide that help.”

The benefits of such training proved useful within weeks of the course’s completion.

“Several people, within a week or two of undertaking the training, reported coming across students facing a range of mental-health issues – one who was having a panic attack, another with an eating disorder – and they were able to assist and have that important conversation.”

The success of the Mental Health First Aid course has enabled Matthew to recommend to the University that it continues next year.

Olivia and her team of volunteers plan to continue The Little Help Project programs into 2018, including creating an equivalent LHP! Let’s Roll program for young males.

The Sandy Duncanson Social Justice Bursary was established in honour of the late Sandy Duncanson, an eminent Tasmanian lawyer and advocate for social justice.

To donate to the University of Tasmania Foundation and help projects like these become a reality, visit http://www.utas.edu.au/donate.

Published on: 04 Dec 2017