“On Brink Of Collapse”: Young Tasmanians Are Suffering Due To Inadequate Mental Health Care

While politicians fight over the marginal seats in Tasmanian’s northwest, young people are experiencing systematic failures in mental health services.

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Last week, Junkee sent a small delegation down to the marginal Tasmanian seats of Bass and Braddon to investigate how regional voters feel about the upcoming election.

— Content Warning: This article contains discussion of disordered eating and mental health. — 

Despite the Government doting on voters in Bass, with the electorate receiving approximately $5493 per voter, not everyone is feeling lucky to be a Tasmanian this election.

I’m on the phone with Lisa*, a young person living in the city of Launceston. She tells me that she’s having a pretty rough day. Lisa is seventeen, she lives by herself in a public housing block operated by Anglicare. Hailing from the beach town of Low Head, she was raised by her grandmother after her mother died when she was three years old. Lisa says her father comes in and out of her life “when he chooses to”, unable to serve as Lisa’s primary carer due to drug addiction.

Young Tasmanians have to grow up fast, especially those living in rural areas of the state. To attend college, many Tasmanians have to make the migration from their family homes to bigger towns like Launceston to be closer to senior schools.  While some can cough up the cash for a sought-after spot in college housing, others are forced to rely on the networks of their extended family for accommodation throughout their schooling.

To attend years 11 and 12, Lisa says she went through a stressful period of applying for housing closer to Launceston. Eventually, she was able to secure housing within a public accommodation estate in Launceston city, an hour from her hometown of Low Head. Better yet, the accommodation run by Anglicare offered subsidised rent through Lisa’s Youth Allowance payments.

Lisa is a smart and caring teenager. We chat about some of her favourite movies, in particular the work of cult film directors the Safdie brothers (A page for the script of the 2017 crime drama Good Time even adorns Lisa’s bedroom wall). A recurring motif of their films is the “turmoil of youth”.

Sadly, like one million other people in Australia, Lisa began developing symptoms of an eating disorder after moving into her new accommodation.

Facing the combined pressures of college and adolescence, Lisa’s weight loss worsened and was officially diagnosed with anorexia in 2021. Her therapist (a much older man that Lisa says “rarely addressed” her disorder in meetings) eventually advised to have Lisa hospitalised for her illness.

High school and opportunities like university that lay beyond it, would have to wait.

Tasmanian Mental Health Sector Has Been In Crisis For A Year

Just over a year ago, the chairman of the Australian Medical Association Tasmania published an urgent press release after receiving a letter signed by sixteen psychiatrists practicing in the state.

The letter elevated concerns the AMA had been monitoring in the Tasmanian mental health sector. Doctors cited that they were overworked and understaffed, with patients suffering as a result. The AMA claimed that senior mental health workers who had received their training in Tasmania were leaving the state, while overworked doctor’s leave requests were rejected due to the high demand for their services.

“We’re struggling on so many fronts,” Dr John Saul, the president of the Tasmanian AMA tells me as we chat over Zoom. He gladly has taken time out of his holiday to speak with me, while he recuperates on the Sunshine Coast with his wife after a recent operation.

“It’s bad in Hobart, but it’s diabolical in our rural areas.”

“On the northwest coast, you only have one pediatric psychiatrist where we are (already) struggling for psychiatric services with psychologists,” Dr Saul says. “I think excellent people are doing an amazing job with very little support. Um, if, if we could just wave a magic wand and double the level of staffing in Tasmania, we’d go a long way to solving this problem”

The interesting thing about Tasmania’s mental health crisis is the huge number of programs and policies that exist (at least, on paper) to tackle the gaps in the system.

For example, a state of the art program designed to roll out high-level care to treat Tasmanians with eating disorders is currently in development in Hobart.

“Hobart’s better, but Hobart’s still bad,” Dr Saul says. “Getting someone into a psychologist in Hobart can take six to twelve weeks. It’s bad in Hobart, but it’s diabolical in our rural areas.”

Despite how many reforms the Government proposes for the sector, Dr Saul says that there currently isn’t enough funding and staffing to see these policies through.

“We’ve got good people here trying as hard as they can. We’ve got good psychologists, psychiatrists, good GPS trying to cover as many bases as they can, but we just don’t have enough government financial support.”

Growing Pains, The Trouble With Turning 18

Endlessly patient, I hear Lisa’s bright laugh through my phone’s speaker as I call her for a second time. She’s explaining the details of her first hospitalisation in 2021.

“The first time was a period of six weeks in which I put on lots of weight and was very unhappy,” Lisa says.

“I didn’t get any mental support or psychologist input or anything.”

Hospitalisation for eating disorders can seem like being trapped with your worst phobia. During her first hospitalisation, Lisa was weighed every two weeks and closely monitored by staff while she was given meals. Despite this, she tells me that she wasn’t given any psychological care for her eating disorder. “I didn’t get any mental support or psychologist input or anything, it was just eat food, gain weight, and then leave,” Lisa says.

After finishing treatment Lisa says that she relapsed a couple of months later. Lisa was sent to hospital a second time on a mental health order and spent the entire duration of the stay under suicide watch. She would later return to hospital a third time on her own terms, bravely accepting help after noticing her disorder was worsening again.

Something that weighs heavily on Lisa’s mind is her approaching eighteenth birthday. At eighteen, she will age out of her current mental health provider CAHMS and have to apply for the adult equivalent.

“My medical team, they speak about it at every meeting I go to that I’m gonna be turning 18 soon, and this service will no longer be available to me. That it’s going to run out.” Lisa says.

Discussing the transition with her psychologist, she was told that the adult system AHMS currently didn’t have any specialists available to treat her eating disorder.

“Essentially, they’re just not really interested in my case,” Lisa says.

Lisa has independently explored additional private treatment options in Hobart without success. “None of it is bulk billed. So, yeah, for every session I went to I’d have to fork out like nearly $200, which I just cannot do,” Lisa says. She said that her frustration and rage about the system led her to intentionally lose weight three weeks ago, as a way of protesting the lack of treatment for her eating disorder.

“I thought in order to make them listen, make them see how much it’s affecting me. I had to get worse physically like as bad as possible before my meeting so that they would listen to what I was feeling,” Lisa says.

Lisa is having a bad day because she has just received news regarding the outcome of her review. Her psychologist has advised that Lisa is no longer capable of living by herself, and must move out of her affordable accommodation.

Young People Are Taking Action On Youth Mental Health

The north-western town of Burnie’s new Headspace clinic operates above a gym in the centre of town. I’m speaking with Laura Johnson, who is a member of the centre’s Youth Reference group. She explains that her official position with Headspace started after she visited the clinic to drop off a poster for her own mental health community service.

“There isn’t the people to train up more people and it’s just a continual loop.”

Laura is 23 years old, and while she’s too humble to tell me in person, after some googling I discover she was nominated for Young Tasmanian of the Year in 2021 for her work with THEIRS, which started when she was just a teenager.

THEIRS stands for Talk, Hear and Help, Educate, Inform, Refer and Support. Through the program, Laura organises community forums that bring a range of mental health support providers to the local community in the form of public speaking events.

She says that she started the service after being dismayed at the lack of mental health support for young people in rural Tasmania, which quickly took off.

“At one point I had like, you know, anywhere from 10 or more people messaging me per week telling me about their stories, their struggles, that they don’t know where to seek, help and asking for my advice or help alongside that,” Laura says.

Quickly growing the program to better accommodate the public, Laura proudly tells me that she has a range of trained professionals behind her now who act as “really great beacons” for community mental health solutions.

23-year-old Laura Johnson, founder of youth mental health service THEIRS. Photo supplied.

Hailing from the small rural town of Smithton, Laura also has experienced a difficult move from her hometown to attend senior college.

“There was definitely a lot of stress in that I was quite young at the time and had to move away from family. You have to grow up quite quickly as well.” Laura says.

According to Laura, one of the biggest issues facing youth mental health in Tasmania is the availability of specialised resources dealing with eating disorders. “There are not very many people trained up in Tasmania to help with that, (who are) solely trained up for eating disorders,” Laura says.

Rather than travelling to Hobart, Laura says that it’s common for people to travel to mainland Australia to seek treatment for an eating disorder.

“There aren’t the people to train up more people and it’s just a continual loop. I think that may be also one of the reasons why we don’t see those who are trained up in mental health actually remaining Tassie,” Laura says.

What Change Will The Federal Election Bring?

Of the recent frustrations Lisa has experienced, she’s especially annoyed that her upcoming eighteenth birthday falls just a few weeks after the federal election, rendering her unable to cast a vote. She’s recently become heavily interested in politics, transferring her attention from Trump’s America to local issues in her community.

Lisa is extremely concerned about climate change and has recently spent some time volunteering with the Greens. Despite feeling “dejected” that she can’t vote this weekend, she still feels that her voice can make a difference.

“I know that I have the power to influence other people’s votes and inform them of what they’re voting for. And so that’s what I do through my volunteer work, just to help as many people as possible, see how they have so much power in what they’re voting for and how it’ll affect them.” Lisa says.

I wonder if Lisa knows how exceptionally strong she is for a teenager. Despite all the disruption her illness has caused, Lisa is simultaneously studying to be an English teacher via distance while attending college part-time.

After our conversation a few weeks ago, I checked in with Lisa to hear how she was doing. She tells me that since our last interview she has moved in with her grandmother again in Low Head. She tells me she agrees with her therapist’s decision that she shouldn’t be living in her home, and tells me that she “is dreading” the prospect of living by herself again.

Despite this, even a room in a share-house would eat up the majority of her youth allowance, with the financial pressure placing a greater strain on her mental health.

“It’s impossible for someone my age to get a house on their own to enter the private rental market on their own because it’s so expensive now,” Lisa told Junkee.

While politicians circle her marginal electorate of Bass and neighbouring swing seat Bradden, Lisa has a concise message for the next would be representative of Launceston.

“I just think more kids need more support to stop them from killing themselves.”

*Name changed for privacy reasons.

Charles Rushforth is a staff writer at Junkee. Follow him on Twitter.

If you’re experiencing symptoms of an eating disorder, you can receive free and confidential help below:

Butterfly Foundation: 1800 33 4673. You can also chat online or email

For anyone experiencing mental health crisis you can immediately contact the below services for help:

Kids Helpline: 1800 551 800
Lifeline: 13 11 14