Foundation for Rural & Regional Renewal

Tackling stigma around youth mental health

Mental health difficulties are the most common health challenges for young people, with between 20-25% of Australian adolescents experiencing a mental health or substance abuse issue in any given year. In the Bega Valley, youth mental health has been identified as a major issue facing the region. With a lack of public transport, limited education opportunities and few social spaces for young people – outside of playing a sport – a youth dance organisation has become an important alternative and a vital hub for self-expression and creativity.

Bega-based fLiNG Physical Theatre provides opportunities for young people to work with local and visiting professional artists to create original contemporary performance projects. They aim to give voice to regional perspectives, and designed a powerful youth-centric research and performance project called ‘My Black Dog”, which set out to learn about and support the mental health of young people living in the Bega Valley.

The project had two components; the creation of a moving, original performance exploring youth mental health, and the design and delivery of wellbeing workshops for high school students exploring how they can creatively and practically support their wellbeing. But to deliver it, they needed increased resourcing and capacity.

A grant of $17,700 from FRRR’s In a Good Place program, funded by CCI Giving, was awarded and spread across the project to help realise the final performance outcome. It enabled the employment of two fLiNG Alumni, who returned to the Bega Valley to perform in the work, demonstrating potential future pathways for younger fLiNG Company members, who look to these people as role models. Funds also supported a local year 12 fLiNG Alumni to be employed to co-deliver the Art & Wellbeing workshops in schools around the region, ensuring the program is relevant and speaks on the level of those it’s being delivered to.

The live performance, entitled ‘My Black Dog’, was co-created with fLiNG Company members (14-18yrs) across all aspects of activity. The work’s themes – isolation, disconnection, grief and bullying – were set in a school context, and recognisable for many in the young audience. The uncomfortable territory also revealed the characters’ resilience and capacity for them to reach out and support one another.

It ran for a season of eight performances. This project reached more than 750 individuals, and the Art & Wellbeing workshops were delivered to 152 students in local schools. It all helped to break down stigma, learn about what is occurring in the community, and help generate conversation on an issue that is often difficult to talk about. Each performance was supported by local mental health professionals.

The community response to the show was exceptional, and many were inspired to share their own stories. Exploring and talking about the difficulties that young people come up against is the best way to begin to solve and heal them, and fLiNG Physical Theatre is contributing to the conversation in a highly creative and collaborative way. It was the recipient of the 2019 WayAhead Mental Health Matters Award for Youth, and shortlisted for an Australian Dance Award.

Gabriella Rose, fLiNG’s Co-Artistic Director, explained that the project has enabled a deeper understanding of how mental health issues may present in a young person, and what things can be done to support them.

“It has also revealed the enormity of the problem in regional areas, the lack of infrastructure and support available to isolated people. Through round table discussions with school welfare officers, mental health workers, parents and teens, it revealed how overwhelming the situation can be, but also how hard people are working to build better support structures around vulnerable young people in our community.”

The project’s final report also notes:

“Ultimately the My Black Dog project reiterated that within our community, mental health issues are common, and they can impact everyone. fLiNG’s Artistic Directors saw the Bega Valley community take up the offer to connect with this work and to start a conversation. The more we talk about mental health, the better we will become at looking after ourselves, recognising when we need support, and helping each other get through it.”