$1.3m grant announced for program to build help-seeking in young people

26 Feb 2024

The grant will fund further development of an award-winning, school-based program that improves understanding of substance use and builds help-seeking skills among adolescents.

vital help-seeking skills

The Minister for Health and Aged Care, Mark Butler recently announced a team of researchers from Monash University and RMIT University led by Professor Dan Lubman as recipients of a Medical Research Future Fund (MRFF) grant.

The $1.3 million grant will fund the next stages of development in the school-based health promotion program MAKINGtheLINK, which builds vital help-seeking skills and knowledge among young people when faced with substance use or mental health problems.

“We know that almost one in 10 Australians between 16 and 24 are struggling with a substance use disorder,” Professor Lubman said. “And mid-adolescence is a key developmental stage to identify emerging problems and build the skills that these young people need to seek help.”

Research has identified an average delay of 18 years before adults with substance use issues access the help that they need, so the awareness that young people gain in this program could have life-long benefits.

“Our approach is designed to set young people up for a life, with skills to address any mental health and substance use issues they may experience,” Professor Lubman said.

“A life where seeking help is normalised.”

A growing need

While young people are often willing to seek professional help for depression, they are more likely to speak to their friends for advice about alcohol and other drug problems.

“Our challenge is that the peers they go to for help don’t have the necessary knowledge, confidence and skills to effectively intervene,” Professor Lubman said.

For example, 13 percent of young people surveyed as part of the program’s research could not identify risky drinking behaviour and considered risky drinking as “normal” or just part of growing up.

A strength of the MAKINGtheLINK program is that it picks up on the existing trend among young people to seek help from peers, and teaches them how to effectively support their friends to overcome their fears and concerns about seeking professional help.

“Friends are highly influential during adolescence,” Professor Lubman said. “So young people are ideally positioned to act as ‘gate-keepers’ to mental health services.”

“Since our program equips young people with the knowledge and skills needed to help their friends, we are also finding that these skills facilitate their own help-seeking behaviour,” he said. 

While other programs successfully improve intentions to seek help, a large trial of MAKINGtheLINK delivered in schools found that help-seeking improved among participants, making the program uniquely beneficial.

“As far we know, MAKINGtheLINK is the only program in the world that not only changes adolescents’ attitudes and intentions about depression and alcohol harms but also improves help-seeking and peer support,” Professor Lubman said.

Evidence-based, universal design

Designed to be delivered by teachers, the program draws upon two well-validated models of behaviour change to build students’ knowledge and practical skills in supporting their peers.

Help Seeking Activites

As outlined above, the program:

  • breaks down barriers to professional help-seeking;
  • promotes a culture of peer support;
  • encourages earlier intervention for those at risk; and
  • builds awareness of local services and supports.

Universal programs such as the MAKINGtheLINK are designed to reach whole populations, which makes it accessible to young people from marginalised groups.

 “We know that marginalised groups experience higher rates of mental health and substance use disorders, as well as greater barriers to help-seeking,” Professor Lubman said. “Because of this, we are taking a comprehensive co-design approach to enhance its accessibility.”

The next stage

As a result of the funding from the MRFF grant, the next stage of the project will focus on co-designing a web-based digital adaptation of the original program over the next four years, to ensure widespread scalability and acceptability across a broad range of school settings.

“Our aim is to provide a scalable national solution to reducing alcohol and drug harm among adolescents by increasing the reach and uptake of the program,” Professor Lubman said.

If the next stage of the development proves effective, the MAKINGtheLINK program will be the first evidence-informed resource for schools that addresses critical gaps in young people’s understanding about when and how to seek help as soon as they need it.

“On behalf of the whole research team, I’d like to thank Minister Butler and the Medical Research Future Fund for giving us the opportunity to further develop this unique program for schools across Australia,” Professor Lubman said.

  • Researchers are encouraging Australian secondary schools to take part in the project and will be actively recruiting schools in the coming months. If your school is interested in the MAKINGtheLINK program, please contact Turning Point or Jodie Matar, Project Manager, via [email protected]
  • “Under Construction” is a 4-minute animation that was developed as part of the program: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g2gVzVIBc_g

Chief Investigators: Prof Dan Lubman, Prof Patrick Olivier, A/Prof Christine Grove, Dr Alex Waddell, Dr Ali Cheetham, Dr Bosco Rowland, Dr Roisin McNaney, Dr Jue Xie, Jodie Matar, Prof Deb Rickwood

Participating institutions: Monash University, RMIT University and the University of Canberra

Partner organisations: Headspace National Youth Mental Health Foundation, the Alcohol and Drug Foundation, Turning Point, Eastern Health, the Victorian Department of Education and the Australian Secondary Principals' Association.