Making Co-design a Reality in Youth Services: A suggested way forward to integrate the perspectives of young people, service providers, and the broader youth mental health system

Society is faced with a youth mental health crisis. Young people are presenting to mental health services at unprecedented rates and with rising levels of mental health complexity. Yet, young people aged between 12 to 25 years old have the worst access to mental health care compared to other age groups across the lifespan.

Defined as issues with demand management, this phenomenon occurs when demand exceeds available resources and supply for help. When this occurs, young people seeking help are either placed on waitlists or excluded from services required.

Service providers, policy makers, and decision makers are faced with increasing pressure to rethink approaches in the youth mental health system as demand management issues persist. Present-day practices are limited in their considerations of unique nuances, intricacies, complexities, and generational differences in what it means to be a young person in today’s society. More now than ever, the youth sector is turning to young people for their lived expertise to solve these contemporary issues – out of pure necessity and government direction.

Despite attempts to embed co-design into the sector, young people’s voices are still being lost as service providers and policymakers fail to drive change and translate this lived expertise into practice.

According to Ms Samantha Lai, the PhD Scholar at the Adelaide Business School, young people with lived experience have valuable contributions which are thought-provoking, ground-breaking, and have the potential to instil positive systemic change. She says, “The reality is that the appetite to capture this through co-design does not correspond with the system’s readiness to adopt these ideas”, hinting at the importance of involving all stakeholders of the youth sector – including young people – on a change journey to upskill, invest and commit to co-design, with the intention to create, improve, and innovate new systems that place young people at the heart of their operations.

To ensure co-design is made into a reality, rather than an ambition of the youth sector, the University of Adelaide and Sonder have embarked on a three-year research partnership. Led by Ms Lai, this research will authentically engage young people, service providers, and the broader youth mental health system to co-design, commit, and invest into more effective, efficient, and ethical models of care and systems for young people seeking help for their mental health.  

by Samantha Lai (UOA, Sonder), Dr Tracey Dodd (UOA), Mr Steven Wright (Sonder), Dr Sarah Fraser (Sonder)

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