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Opinion Mental Health Youth

Opinion: The Missing Link for the Forgotten Middle

3 min read
Forgotten Middle

With suicide on the rise for young people aged 14-25 years of age, it is quickly becoming evident that the nation’s current mental health and suicide prevention model is not working.  It is a model that does not consider the complex needs of young people who are struggling to heal from childhood trauma – childhood trauma caused by the break up of families, death of family and friends, abuse and bullying.   

These young people who are not being captured by the current model have been labelled by Orygen as the ‘missing middle’, however at Youth Insearch, we know they are not missing, they have always been there, and they are the ‘forgotten middle’, and in a sense – have been left behind. 

Young people who have been let down by those they were supposed to rely upon – adults, will have little chance of developing trust for the same adult population when it comes to healing. Whilst clinicians and social workers definitely have an integral role to play in the journey, at Youth Insearch we have spent over 30 years offering peer-to-peer support, and have developed a leadership program, empowering young people to offer support to those journeying through the same tough times they once encountered. 

So what is the answer for supporting Australia’s young people?  We respect the work of so many talented clinicians, social workers and counsellors across this country, and they form the foundation of our own organisation, empowering and supporting peer leaders who are helping others through their lived experiences. The way forward is a model which incorporates a peer-to-peer workforce delivering trauma-informed solutions.  

I know from personal experience that approaching a government-led mental health agency is an insurmountable requirement for a young person who has experienced the kind of trauma that takes a lifetime to heal. Approaching adults about issues caused by other adults is not really a reasonable request.   

Related: End Youth Suicide Week: Helping Aussie youth go from trauma to triumph

As a homeless young person, I was fortunate enough to be referred to the Youth Insearch Program, established by young people in 1985, and designed to deliver a caring and trusting environment, ensuring young people are listened to and affirmed by their peers. That they have the opportunity to gain insights into their own lives, by listening to the experiences of others and being a part of the solution, empowering themselves to solve their own problems in the future.  Without some sort of peer-to-peer intervention, I can confidently say I would not be where I am today, as a well-balanced adult, and CEO of Youth Insearch. 

Research tells us that a young person is much more likely to disclose their distress – and suicide intent to a peer as opposed to a health professional or adult. Having a support network of youth with lived experience, underpinned by experts, is key when it comes to both prevention and early intervention for suicide. Therefore, it is crucial for young people to have access to meaningful support, and a collaborative approach across the sector is needed. 

My healing journey was 28 years ago, and I was fortunate to be referred to Youth Insearch.  I was one young person, led to a pathway back by peers with lived experience who ultimately helped me to turn my life around.  However, when the cause of young people’s mental health and suicide in this nation goes untreated, there are so many just like me who have not had the same opportunities.   

Suicide is disproportionately affecting minority groups across Australia. Members of the LGBTIQA+ community have the highest rate of suicidality of any group. Rural populations are two times more likely to die by suicide, and almost one in four young people dying by suicide in Australia are Indigenous, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander populations.  

Our own data shows that 90% of the forgotten middle have experienced complex trauma, directly contributing to current levels of psychological distress and suicide risk. This aligns with current research findings, highlighting the correlation between trauma and suicide. 

Since its inception, Youth Insearch has adopted a trauma-informed approach across all aspects of program design and delivery. Trauma-informed support adheres to the key principles of safety, trustworthiness, choice collaboration and empowerment. It focuses on identifying young people’s strengths, and acknowledges that their struggles and ‘symptoms’ are coping responses to adverse events in their lives. The responsibility for healing is shared, as supportive social and community networks are activated.       

Next week, Youth Insearch staff will be joined by empowered lived experience peer workers at meetings with Labor Ministers and MPs, They will share their stories and lobby for a peer-to-peer workforce. The fact that these same young people, who as recently as a few years ago were feeling hopeless in poverty and addiction, are now exuding confidence and fronting members of Parliament with impassioned pleas, is evidence enough that peer-to-peer support works, and is the missing link for the forgotten middle. 

For more on social and emotional wellbeing, check out Third Sector’s 7th National Social and Emotional Wellbeing Forum.


Stephen Lewin joined Youth Insearch as General Manager in December 2014 and was appointed CEO for Youth Insearch in November 2019. Stephen also brings his experience as a former Youth Insearch participant.

Committed to a career creating public value, Stephen previously worked with the NSW Government for 19 years, including senior roles in accommodation and respite, community support teams and home care. He is a public-sector manager who throughout his career has delivered services to society’s most vulnerable people.
Through practice and executive education, Stephen has built a reputation of implementing lasting change, through organisational culture assessment and transformation.

Stephen holds an Executive MBA from the University of Wollongong and Graduate Certificate in Public Sector Management from Flinders University.


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