10 Nov, 2014 Last updated: 19 Mar, 2015

The subject of positive mental health – happiness, satisfaction and a sense of purpose – and the factors that may contribute to it is being increasingly explored by international thought leaders, practitioners and decision makers.

Healthy individuals are able to realise their own abilities, cope with the normal stresses of life and be a productive member of their community. Corey Keyes envisages mental wellbeing as a continuum, where the healthiest are ‘flourishing’ — something he estimated only 17 per cent of the US population experienced1.

Similar studies by Huppert and So in Europe found that flourishing varied widely between nations, from as low as 9 per cent in some countries to 40 per cent in others2. Central to this wellness model is the concept of resilience – the ability to cope with, recover from and be strengthened by experiences of adversity – and discussions about how to build it. The UK Foresight Mental Capital and Wellbeing Project takes a life cycle view of resilience recognising that it develops across the lifespan, with parenting in early childhood, school and work experiences and the quality of our communities as key in its development3.

Forty per cent of young Australians experience low social and emotional wellbeing and 13 per cent encounter mental health difficulties4.

Further, as 75 per cent of mental health problems occur before the age of 254, understanding ways to build resilience and cope with life’s setbacks could be a particularly powerful way to prevent mental illness among young people.

Since 1999, VicHealth has provided leadership in the mental wellbeing field, focusing its efforts on preventing factors that lower mental wellbeing and contribute to mental ill health through race-based discrimination, gender inequity, violence against women and social exclusion.

Building on the knowledge created through these successes, VicHealth is starting new work aiming to increase resilience among young people, with a particular focus on three areas — the workplace, school and digital technology

VicHealth’s Principal Program Officer in the mental wellbeing team Dr Stephen Carbone says it is essential that resilience-building activities are embedded in the environments in which children and young people live, play, learn and work.

"A focus on resilience will allow VicHealth to contribute to the capacity of those who are at risk of mental illness to avoid it or survive it, while assisting those who are already well to flourish," explains Dr Carbone.

To help shift the nation's mental health profile and encourage young people to reach their full psychological potential, VicHealth will collaborate with leading organisations active in the fields of resilience, work, school and digital technology.

Here’s what the experts are saying:

Jan Owen AM

Jan Owen AM

CEO, Foundation for Young Australians

Working gives young people the resources to participate actively in their community. If you don’t feel like you have a sense of connectedness and a sense of belonging and you don’t feel like you are contributing, you can get into behaviours that people consider antisocial — you either withdraw or you act out.

I think that the number one thing we’re missing in building resilience for young people across the board in our country is risk-taking. That’s what builds resilience. It’s not actually lots of happiness, it’s not the joy pill, and it’s actually failure which you recover from. For younger people feeling like they’re in a vibrant working environment where you can experiment, you can fail, you can try again, is really important.

Dr Jenny Proimos

Dr Jenny Proimos

Principal Medical Advisor, Department of Education and Early Childhood Development (Victoria)

Resilience is an attribute that is best developed early and influenced by all the experiences children and young people have.

Education settings are crucial to building resilience as children and young people spend so much time there and are strongly influenced by the adults, the peers and the social environment around them.

Research shows that children and young people who feel cared for by people at their school and feel connected to learning are more likely to be motivated and show improved academic outcomes.

Victorian research shows that children and young people with a higher level of connectedness to school are less likely to abuse substances, engage in violence, report mental health problems or engage in sex at an early age. Social and school connectedness in early secondary school are predictors of late teenage substance abuse, mental health and academic outcomes.

Associate Professor Jane Burns

Associate Professor Jane Burns

CEO, Young and Well Cooperative Research Centre

For most young Australians, technologies, social networks and apps play a critical role in curating both their offline and online relationships. Research from the Young and Well Cooperative Research Centre shows that when harnessed appropriately, technologies can help young people develop strong social networks, ensure they feel connected and, particularly for our most vulnerable young people, enable them to actively participate in issues and communities that they care about.

Digital resilience is the ability to deal with negative experiences both online or offline and the capacity to bounce back in the face of adversity. Technology provides us a unique opportunity to overcome the barriers around improving mental health and wellbeing for young people, including the isolation of distance, the stigma of help-seeking and the lack of knowledge about where to go to find help. We now have the evidence to understand where young people ‘are’ and how to best engage them – and the answer is simple: online.

Winthrop Professor Stephen Zubrick

Winthrop Prof. Stephen Zubrick

University of Western Australia, Senior Principal Research Fellow

Mental illness and mental health distress are set to become the single biggest burden to the health and social welfare system in the coming two decades. There is a huge scope for promoting ‘mentally healthy’ behaviours, workplaces and communities.

Even when life gets very confronting and challenging, a resilient young person has the emotional and behavioural flexibility to manage, stay well and see things through.

There is a general consensus of evidence that our future prospects are optimised when individuals are able to:

  • regulate their emotions
  • engage in exploratory behaviour
  • communicate effectively
  • be self-directed
  • have intellectual flexibility
  • possess some degree of introspection
  • possess self-efficacy in meeting life’s challenges.

1 Keyes, CLM 2002, ‘The mental health continuum: From languishing to flourishing in life’, Journal of Health and Social Behaviour, 43, pp.207-222.
2 Huppert, FA & So, TTC 2013, ‘Flourishing across Europe: Application of a new conceptual framework for defining wellbeing’, Social Indicators Research, 110, pp.837-861.
3 Foresight Mental Capital and Wellbeing Project 2008, ‘Final Project Report – Executive Summary’, London: The UK Government Office for Science.
4 Bernard, M, Stephanou, A & Urbach, D 2007 ‘Student Social and Emotional Health Report’, Melbourne: Australian Scholarships Group.
5 Resnick MD, Bearman P, Blum R 1997. ‘Protecting adolescents from Harm: Findings of the National Longitudinal Study on Adolescent Health’, JAMA, 278(1), pp.823-832.
6 Bond L, Butler H, Thomas L, Carlin J, Glover S, Bowes G & Patton G, ‘2007 Social and school connectedness in early secondary school as predictors of late teenage substance use, mental health, and academic outcomes’, Journal of Adolescent Health, 40, e9-e18.
7 Ibid.