Youth Health Summit: ideas for a brighter future

Now, perhaps more than ever, young people have reason to think deeply and darkly about the future. Climate change, most recently shown by the catastrophic impacts of fires and floods, and the long-term implications of the COVID pandemic, raise crucial questions for young people pondering the years ahead.

It is a fitting time for young Australians to gather and discuss how we as a community can meet the present and emerging physical and mental health challenges facing young people.

The Youth Health Forum National Summit #YHFSummit on September 15 will provide an ideal platform for young leaders and consumers from around Australia to join policy makers, researchers and service providers to discuss the health and wellbeing issues that affect people under 30.

YHF Summit website

What is encouraging is that the epoch-changing developments of climate change and the pandemic are propelling fresh thinking about how young people can exert their influence.

Among the themes the Summit will focus on will be three main areas:

  • How well is the current health system serving young people?
  • How can policy makers and health advocates work together?
  • What do young people need from the future of healthcare?

A key concern for the future of many young people is climate change and it’s an issue about which they feel they are not being listened to.

This issue is dealt with in an important report by the Wellbeing Health & Youth (WH&Y) Centre of Research Excellence in Adolescent Health, which is funded by the National Health and Medical Research Council. The centre is an Australia-wide network of researchers committed to championing good health in the ‘teenage decade’.

The report, based on reports of the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, says young Australians consider climate change to be an important topic, with 30 per cent listing ‘the environment’ as one of the top three most important issues. The report says addressing climate change is integral to youth health now and in the future, yet more than 70 per cent of young people believe their opinions on the topic are not being taken seriously.

The effects of climate change on wellbeing can be direct or indirect, immediate or delayed, and result in short- or long-term impacts on the individual.

Direct impacts can include bushfire-induced and heat stress health problems for greater impact on children and teenagers such as asthma and gastroenteritis.  Traumatic stress and stress-related problems can result in delayed and prolonged effects on mental health, as many as five years after the event.

Climate change can also impact wellbeing through changes to social determinants of health. Certain population groups, such as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders and low‑income families, can be particularly affected.

So what can be done to counter the causes and impacts of climate change? And what hope can young people have of positive change?

New approaches to government in Wales and New Zealand which place wellbeing as a central goal in policy-making are showing the way for communities young and old, to play a stronger role in shaping services and policies.

And these initiatives are being noticed in Australia, notably in a VicHealth report carried out by the George Institute for Global Health which analyses the wellbeing initiatives in Wales and New Zealand.

As the report states: “The events of 2020, including catastrophic Australian bushfires and the global coronavirus pandemic, are a prescient reminder that the world is rapidly changing. These changes bring direct and indirect impacts for both human and planetary health, and the wellbeing of both current and future generations.”

In Wales for instance, government ministers are required to produce a Future Trends Report which looks at the likely future social, economic, environmental and cultural wellbeing trends of Wales to inform planning and priorities at the regional and local levels. It must take account of any action taken by the United Nations in relation to the Sustainable Development Goals and assess the potential impact of that action on the wellbeing of Wales.

In New Zealand, the Wellbeing Budget has been championed as an innovative policy approach and reflects building momentum over the past decade for an alternative approach to measuring quality of life.  Its Wellbeing Budget set five priority areas last year.  These include supporting people in the transition to a climate-resilient, sustainable and low-emissions economy, enabling people to benefit from new technologies and lift productivity through innovation, reducing child poverty and improving child wellbeing, lifting Māori and Pacific incomes, skills and opportunities and supporting improved health outcomes for all New Zealanders.

In considering how the bushfires and the coronavirus pandemic provide an opportunity for reorienting government processes to promote the wellbeing of future generations, the report proposed a series of next steps to explore what an Australian wellbeing approach could look like. 

These steps include: involving potential political, civil society, academic, community and private sector champions in seeking a wellbeing approach; convening policy leaders from Wales and New Zealand with potential Australian policy champions to inspire action; developing an advocacy roadmap to build public and political awareness of the potential benefits of these measures in Australia, including processes for community consultation tailored to the unique context and opportunity created by the coronavirus pandemic.

The information and statistics published by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) are used to inform decisions about health policies and services. In June 2021 it released Australia’s Youth, a report that brings together a wide range of data on the wellbeing of young people aged 12–24. The WH&Y Commission was invited to provide input to the report, including advising on the range of topics covered, and preparing commentaries on three key topics: Climate ChangeDiscrimination, Belonging and Health, and The Wellbeing of LGBTIQ+ Young People

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About the author

Leanne Wells

Leanne Wells

Chief Executive of the Consumers Health Forum of Australia