Urgent funding is required to prevent the closure of an ACT program that supports young people at high risk of suicide, self-harm and future diagnosis of multiple severe psychological disorders. Youth self-harm and suicide is a serious and persistent concern for the ACT community. Rates of self-harm among young Canberrans are the highest in Australia, and over half of all young Canberrans who identify as LGBTQIA+ had seriously considered suicide within the last 12 months. With psychological distress exacerbated by the ongoing impact of COVID-19, it is critical that the ACT community works together to support young people to stay safe and well.
The University of Canberra “WOKE” program provides effective support to young people experiencing emotional dysregulation and suicidal ideation, who are at high risk of suicide, self-harm and future diagnosis of borderline personality disorder. It does this through delivering Dialectical Behaviour Therapy for Adolescents (DBT-A).
WOKE is an exemplar of a place-based program: it is evidence-based, evaluated, cost-efficient and cost-effective. It was developed to respond to a specific gap in the Canberra service system. WOKE achieves positive outcomes for young people, along with their parents and families. Evaluation findings demonstrated significantly reduced suicidal ideation and distress, and improved coping strategies for young people. Furthermore, the WOKE program directly builds the capability of the mental health workforce in the ACT.
Without continued funding, WOKE will end in June 2023. There are currently 73 young people and their families on the program waitlist, demonstrating the high demand for this Program and level of unmet need. There are no other free, early intervention, youth focused DBT programs in the ACT. The closure of this program will further exacerbate challenges for the ‘missing middle’ – young people with moderate to severe mental health issues who experience difficulties accessing support. This issue of the ‘missing middle’ was described in an ACT Government 2022 report.
Community Impact of the WOKE Program
The WOKE program has a demonstrated positive impact for young people, families, the workforce and broader sector in the ACT:
- Improved youth mental health outcomes: Young people who participated in WOKE demonstrated significantly reduced suicidal ideation and distress, and significantly improved their positive coping strategies.
- Increased parenting skills and family functioning: Family members highly valued learning new skills to support their young person, which were also transferable to supporting their other children and family members.
- Building workforce capability: By training intern clinical psychology Masters and PhD students to deliver the program, WOKE both avoids the common workforce recruitment and retention issues experienced across mental health services, while also directly building the DBT capability and confidence of the future mental health workforce in Canberra.
- Supporting the youth mental health sector to function more efficiently: Recent consultations indicated that the presence of a free, early intervention, DBT-A program provided a much-needed referral pathway within the youth mental health sector. This reduced the level of demand on other services and enabled them to work more effectively with their intended target groups.
Young people and families who participated in WOKE described the program as safe and supportive, and recommended it to other young people and families. Their experiences and the positive outcomes they achieved through WOKE are presented in the evaluation report.
Why is the WOKE Program at risk?
The WOKE program commenced in 2019 as a pilot with initial funding from the Capital Health Network, the ACT’s local Primary Health Network (PHN). Due to the constraints of Commonwealth funding streams upon the PHN, the Capital Health Network is unable to source ongoing funds for the WOKE Program, despite highly valuing and recognising the significant community need for and achievements of the program.
This issue speaks to a broader systemic concern regarding the constraints placed upon PHNs in Australia to respond to local community needs. Regardless, the WOKE Program is a locally grown, place-based program that has been developed within and to match the Canberra context. It is the responsibility of the ACT community to enable the WOKE Program to continue to support vulnerable young people and their families.
What funding is required now?
The WOKE Program requires $300,000 per year to be delivered. For this, the program delivers two 14-week group programs to 30 young people and their family members (60 individuals). This includes a combination of group sessions and individual clinical support. Participants each receive up to 70 hours of clinical support.
Dr Justin Barker, Youth Coalition of the ACT | 0407 395 070 | email@example.com
Dr Dean Buckmaster, Clinical lead, WOKE Program, University of Canberra | 0438 656 863 | firstname.lastname@example.org
 ACT Vital Signs Report Card, 2021: https://www.snowfoundation.org.au/vital-signs-canberra-2021/