Support for young males concerned about their future in COVID lockdown

Mate helping mate: The Man Walk founder Mark Burns leading a virtual walk via Zoom from Surf Beach in Kiama. Picture: Robert Peet.
Mate helping mate: The Man Walk founder Mark Burns leading a virtual walk via Zoom from Surf Beach in Kiama. Picture: Robert Peet.

Mental illness affects one in five Australians each year.

But since COVID-19 the incidence has grown.

Many working in the field are increasingly concerned about the impact lockdowns are having on the community, especially young men and women.

Globally the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) has noted how the prevalence of symptoms such as anxiety and depression has risen dramatically among 15- to 24-year-olds. Worsening mental health can be attributed to disruptions to access to mental health services, school closures and a labour market crisis which is disproportionately affecting young people.

The OECD says with adequate support and timely intervention, young people experiencing mental distress may be able to bounce back as the world recovers from COVID. But that will require scaling up existing mental health support in education systems, workplaces and health systems, as well as comprehensive policies to support young people to remain in education, or to find and keep a job.

In the meantime two organisations providing opportunities for youth to talk about how they are feeling are Top Blokes Foundation and The Man Walk.

Exercise: Top Blokes youth worker Callum Franciskovicis encouraging young males to make a plan and exercise. Picture: Robert Peet.

Exercise: Top Blokes youth worker Callum Franciskovicis encouraging young males to make a plan and exercise. Picture: Robert Peet.

Top Blokes youth worker Callum Franciskovic has been in contact with many young people and despite not being able to visit schools is encouraging them to talk, seek help and exercise.

Since 2006 the foundation has developed mentoring programs that reach thousands of 14- to 24-year-old males a year. And Mr Franciskovic is among a team of youth workers helping upskill boys to improve their mental health and social well-being. But since June they have had to change the way they deliver support.

"We used to do face-to-face programs and we currently do it online with groups of young males from different demographics all over NSW," he said.

"What I have noticed consistently with the young men we work with is that they are struggling. In many instances I have seen them just be lethargic or having a very negative attitude to the general sense of their life. Consistently I have seen a lack of routine and structure. Many have found it difficult to remain consistent either in turning up to the Top Blokes program or just doing general school work."

Illawarra high school students participating in a Top Blokes program early in 2021.

Illawarra high school students participating in a Top Blokes program early in 2021.

Mr Franciskovic asks them how they are doing and most describe their mental health as poor. Those doing well felt it was because they were able to set themselves a schedule. He said it was important to find ways for them to deal with emotions and stress, which was why Top Blokes was continuing its programs online.

Lockdown was putting more strain on families and it was becoming more difficult for young people to speak about their mental health to those they would normally go to for support.

"We will go through a basic check-list of the things we feel they need to address. We ask them what it is they are trying to accomplish, and we try to get them to tick off some basic structure in their routine."

Mr Franciskovic said getting them to schedule specific times to go outside and do something enjoyable, such as take the dog for a walk, was important.

Head of programs and operations Amy Harvison said Top Blokes was seeing increased levels of frustration.

Top Blokes Foundation head of programs and operations Amy Harvison.

Top Blokes Foundation head of programs and operations Amy Harvison.

"If they are withdrawing and not reaching out that is probably our biggest concern."

Ms Harvison said there was an element of anger about not being able to see their friends. Year 11 and 12 students were also worried about their future and felt when the jobs market eventually picks up, those with experience will be looked on more favourably. Many students feel they are going be doing school work at home until Christmas.

The Man Walk is another Illawarra-born initiative helping young men through the present lockdown.

Starting with one group in Kiama, it now operates in 62 locations around Australia, allowing thousands of men of all ages to walk and talk about their mental health every week.

Founder Mark Burns said the present lockdown meant The Man Walk had to change and adapt. Mr Burns has always wanted to provide an environment that is positive, supportive and inclusive, where there is no pressure and no barriers. And he is finding new ways to do that.

Until two weeks ago in many regional locations, groups of up to 10 men were able to meet up, split into pairs and talk to each other about how they are going. But that has all had to be put on hold.

"It has been a big impact," Mr Burns said.

"I monitor all our Facebook groups and there has been a noticeable shift in communication with many openly saying they are doing it tough and missing the walks. They are quite openly saying they are missing their mates and they are feeling lonely.

"It is lovely they can verbalise that. But it is also a concern because obviously they are feeling alone."

That prompted Mr Burns to put new strategies in place and introduce virtual walks.

Man Walk founder Mark Burns hosting a virtual man walk from Surf Beach Kiama via Zoom. Picture: Robert Peet

Man Walk founder Mark Burns hosting a virtual man walk from Surf Beach Kiama via Zoom. Picture: Robert Peet

"I hosted one while walking around a paddock in Kiama Downs on Saturday for anyone around the country to join," he said.

"We sent a Zoom link out and from 8am to 9am I did a virtual walk and talk. I had people Zooming in from Caboolture, Geelong, Huskisson, Albury and all kinds of places."

Mr Burns asked what was happening in each area and the feedback from everyone was "this is exactly what we need" and "can we do this every weekend?"

A national walk is being planned and Man Walk groups are being encouraged to host their own virtual walks on a weekly basis.

Mr Burns said there were a growing number of locations with walks involving younger men. Newcastle, Yamba and Huskisson and Darwin have been very proactive doing virtual walks in lockdown.

"The Man Walk is really shifting and finding ways to make sure we can continue those connections," he said.

"That is what we need. It helps to feel like we are part of something through regular connection with other blokes."

Mr Burns said while the Kiama walk was generally held at 6am every Monday and Friday, some of the younger groups were doing theirs later in the day.

"We found at 6am we don't capture the tradies. But there are a lot of the younger blokes at risk who need some connection. They are often in the car at 6.30 on their way to work. Which is why in Gerringong we have a 4.30pm Tuesday walk for them."

Mr Burns said weekly walks over the last two years had created many connections that were really helping countless men in lockdown.

"We don't claim to be a mental health organisation. But we are very aware what we do has huge benefits to people with mental health. Regular connection offsets loneliness and social isolation.

"It is not only the walks that help a huge number of men, but also the banter in our Facebook groups which give support."

If you or someone you know needs help, please call Lifeline on 13 11 14.

This story COVID crisis among young men concerned about their future first appeared on Illawarra Mercury.