Vulnerable young people traumatised by violent and dysfunctional family life are turning to local organisations for help. By Greg Flynn
Traumatised by a violent and dysfunctional family life, 12-year-old Leyla began displaying high-risk behaviours including self-harm.
Her mother, unable to cope, sought help. The team at St Leonards-based Taldumande Youth Services stepped up to the challenge.
Creating a personalised family plan, the team arranged for intensive mental health counselling together with medical, education and safety services to support Leyla* and her by-then divorced mother, particularly in the evenings and on weekends.
During the ongoing crisis, the mother lost her job, which triggered a nervous breakdown. The Taldumande approach then evolved to provide further help to the family. Support included phone calls several times a day between mother, daughter and specialists.
Months of effort began to deliver results. Leyla’s mother now sends Taldumande regular reports that the youngster is attending school, has made friends and is playing netball.
SURGE IN TROUBLED YOUTH
Taldumande CEO Lisa Graham is proud of the success story but she points out the number of people the organisation works with each year across Greater Sydney continues to grow. In the financial year 2021-22, it supported about 850 young people, children and families – up from 805 the previous year.
Taldumande CEO, Lisa Graham
Amongst the services available from Taldumande, an Aboriginal word for a place of refuge, are accommodation programs including crisis lodgings. On any given night, Taldumande has over 70 children and young people in residence.
To describe those who are referred to the organisation by government departments and agencies, the word Graham often uses is “vulnerable”.
“We work with vulnerable young people and vulnerable families with these vulnerabilities being around mental health, behavioural aspects, homelessness and being in a family that’s breaking down.”
Initiatives include the family restoration and preservation program. She also emphasises the importance of customising programs, for example, for LGBTQI individuals.
Taldumande’s successes include a north shore teen who came to the organisation aged 14, exhibiting mood and behavioural disorders. His mother had died, he was oppositional in his relationships, he was regularly smoking marijuana and his father was not coping.
Because of the teen’s complex needs, he was eventually moved into the organisation’s care and, at age 17, went into a Taldumande medium-term home in the Hornsby area. There he had 24/7 care and a more independent life.
“He’s now 21 and a professional gym instructor,” says Graham. “He’s doing very well.”
One kilometre from Taldumande’s office, Phoenix House Youth Services in Crows Nest also offers specialist support – and hope – to hundreds of young people and their families each year.
Phoenix House social worker Emily Olley says an individual case manager is assigned to those requiring help. Aged 12 to 24, those in need have issues which can stem from family violence, family breakdowns, isolation, mental health and addiction.
“Many are disengaged in terms of not being connected to the community,” Olley says. “We figure out what is required for them to re-engage – whether, for example, it’s counselling or if it’s interview skills. Because if they’re not connected, they’re not likely to get a job.”
She adds it is crucial to look not just at a youth’s specific issue, for example the need for tutoring, but to see what is causing the issue – perhaps they are struggling at school – then, in turn, identifying the underlying reason why they are struggling and, finally, to support them at all levels.
Olley recalls one 14-year-old who was referred to Phoenix House in late 2021 by his school because he had run-ins with the police, had been in court on charges, and was rarely attending school.
“There was also a lot of conflict between the teen and his parents, and there was a real risk of homelessness,” she says. “Therefore, we worked with him and his parents on their relationship and how they could better respond to conflict. He also received educational help and counselling to cope with his mental health.
“The wonderful thing is that, after he put in the hard work and we supported him, we attended his year 10 graduation. It’s something neither he nor his parents thought was ever going to happen. He’s now on a lovely trajectory.”
Madeleine Steel, a mother whose son had issues, says parents are first responders when it comes to supporting their kids through the challenges of the teenage years. However, she found there was not a lot of support available specifically for parents.
Over a year ago, Steel and friend Roberta Sowden decided to meet that need by forming Empowering Parents In Crisis (EPIC), which receives backing from Mosman Council.
“Teenagers can go on a path that can be confronting and scary,” Steel says. “We found that talking with other parents who were experiencing the same kind of challenges was comforting and rewarding.”
Parents have opportunities to meet at indoor locations or – three times a month – to join EPIC Walks, which involve strolling through bushland or near a beach before stopping for outdoor discussions with their fellow walkers.
“It’s amazing when everyone sits around in a group and swaps ideas or resources and talks about what works for them and what doesn’t,” Steel says. “It might involve 10 people, so it’s nice and personal. When we’re talking as group all the stigma about the situation we’re in disappears.
“People who come for the first time generally talk the most because they haven’t spoken about it for however long they’ve been on a crisis journey. They don’t feel safe talking to their friends but they do find EPIC is a really safe place where they can learn from others.”
Steel adds that her son recently told another person about EPIC and “he was actually proud and glad of it”.
In this digital age, the youth mental health service ReachOut is totally online. “Young people are digital natives,” says the organisation’s director of operations, Janina Jancu. “A teenager today has only grown up in a digital environment and they’re comfortable seeking out help in that environment. Our peer workers have experience with mental health and life challenges and have been trained to use this experience to assist others.”
The Sydney-based national service, which was developed with input from young people, allows users to connect anonymously through peer chats and moderated chat forums and to access resources. Those resources address the multiple issues that prompt two million interactions annually with the service.
Jancu lists the three main issues as study stress, stress about the future and relationships.
“We speak in a voice that is very familiar to teens because the service is co-created and co-designed by young people,” she says.
“Traditionally, there has been quite a lot of judgment about people expressing mental health concerns. In a digital space where they are anonymous, we offer a service which is respectful and safe. There is no judgment and that appeals to the young.”
NEW LEASE ON LIFE
Lacking self-esteem, anxious and shy, teenager Brad would look at the floor rather than engage with people. His parents were distraught. Their son had changed.
With the previously bright student refusing to attend school, his parents turned to WAYS Secondary – an eastern suburbs-based independent, alternative NSW Education Standards Authority-accredited high school.
WAYS Secondary is one of several services run by parent organisation WAYS Youth & Family. Other programs include WAYS Wellness Centre for counselling and case management, WAYS Training, and WAYS After School and Vacation Care.
Taking up the challenge, the organisation’s CEO and principal, Dr Terri Said, developed a multipronged approach to support and guide Brad*.
She referred him to a psychologist, provided a case manager from WAYS Wellness Centre and took him on as a student at WAYS Secondary, which aims to instill a sense of self-worth, motivation and a connection to education in students who have struggled with or who just do not wish to attend mainstream schooling.
Initially, Brad found it hard to articulate and volunteer information in class. Then, over a period of six months, his attendance record improved, he began to engage with the teachers and now the 15-year-old is hoping for a career in law.
“The transformation is unbelievable,” says Said. “He comes to school every day, is very outgoing and helps other kids. His parents are over the moon.”
Said, with over 20 years’ experience as an adolescent and family therapist as well as being a clinical psychologist, says other parents have found benefits from WAYS’ counselling services, including the effective parenting courses run twice a year. These free government-funded courses involve eight hours over four weeks and assist parents understand and manage their adolescent’s behaviour, and teach them to communicate effectively with the youngsters.
Not all parents are as supportive as Brad’s. Said outlines the case of another teenager who had a “fractured home life” and, like Brad, had low self-esteem and would not attend school. On the scale of mild to moderate emotional issues, Samantha* was on the upper end. A case manager encouraged Samantha to attend WAYS Secondary.
“The mainstream system just wasn’t able to help her and her parents were not in the picture,” Said says.
“It took us 1½ years but we never gave up. This student is now in year 11 and comes to our school every day and she’s excelling at her schoolwork.
“She worked with the case manager to get her housing, she worked with the psychologist to build her self-esteem and the teachers made her feel like she could really do the schoolwork. She plans to go university whereas before she wasn’t even going to finish year 10.”
WAYS, which has offices in Bondi and Bondi Junction, also offers free counselling and case management for those aged 12-24 and their families.
Waverley parents Marie and Jason say WAYS psychologist Luke Cox “provided counselling and always supported our family during a difficult year. He completely engaged our difficult-to-reach teenage son”.
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