VIEW: Young people’s needs aren’t new, they’ve been overlooked for years

During the coronavirus pandemic, there has been a significant spike in demand among young people for mental health support. Kids Helpline fielded one call every 69 seconds in April this year, with the majority of calls from women between 19 to 25 years of age.

Youth Advocate, Jahin Tanvir, believes the pandemic has seen young people’s needs and concerns largely overlooked, and there is a growing need to effectively engage with today’s youth so they are empowered to withstand the current challenges and uncertainty. With recent research highlighting how rarely young people are quoted in media, despite the growing volume of issues directly impacting today’s youth, Tanvir encourages young people to continue using their voices to drive the changes they want to see in society.

  • What do you see is the most important role of youth advocates in 2020? 

I am a strong believer that youth advocates provide the platform for young people’s needs and rights to be empowered. Especially in the capricious climate that we are seeing more and more of, there is a consensus that the youth are finding it difficult to be heard about their concerns in the short- term with a deeper anxiety clouding their long-term futures.

Youth advocates have the capacity to shatter that barrier and ensure that there is productive dialogue happening. Whether it be with ministers or one’s local council, youth advocates put youth at the forefront of national conversations. I have had the distinct privilege of meeting so many forward-thinking young people throughout my experiences and they all have such fantastic zest and ambitions. But one communal thread that flows through all of them is that it is the innate desire to create long-lasting social change that brings them all together. It’s honestly something I’ve never seen before. To tackle the status quo and reform poorly designed traditional outlooks, especially ones that are negatively affecting the larger community. And if you ask me about youth advocates going forward, I think that we need more of us and I hope that more young people decide to take action because it is valuable.

  • Do you believe the pandemic has highlighted or overlooked the needs of Australia’s young people?

The best way I can respond to that question is that the pandemic has definitely highlighted the gap that exists when it comes to addressing young people’s needs – a gap that has been overlooked for many years.

After COVID-19 hit, I’ve worked with a few organizations to produce submissions to the senate about young people and their responses to the pandemic. Even though some of the inquiry work is confidential, what I noticed clearly was that young people are anxious about not only now, but the next few years. They know that the normal that we once had will no longer return. They understand that. But the uncertainty of what’s to come is a worry for many. And I’m not just referring to the changes to the safety and quality of life.

Many young people have raised countless concerns about their progression with their studies in school and university being drastically hindered. Mental health, unsurprisingly, continues to be a predominant feature as the concept of staying home for an extended period of time has led to a rise in overthinking and negative self-talk. Employment was another massive toll as the loss of jobs has led many to feel insecure about their livelihoods and the stability that they once had.

The point of concern for me, as a young person, is that these issues about access and security didn’t just come out of thin air. We have had years of deliberation around the need to focus on young people’s transition through education and employment, awareness for accessing health services and ensuring their voices are heard in local and national conversations. What COVID-19 did was just amplify the wound that already existed. Now, even though it has highlighted the complications that exist, I’ll never stop being hopeful about the change that can happen once we translate these discussions into tangible solutions.

An article that I had the privilege of co-authoring I think sums up the way we should respond very eloquently. We wrote that the coronavirus is a litmus test for the strength of societies everywhere. We are all in this together. To make changes that are equitable and sustainable for young and old alike, we must act together – in policy and community responses. The best way to include young people is to engage meaningfully and respectfully – and speak with, not at, them. We need to finally get young people in the room when we’re having national discussions that directly affect them.

  • What are you currently working on in your role at the Consumers Health Forum of Australia? 

My role at Consumers Health Forum is as a policy adviser, specifically focusing on health policy and how to better enhance the participation and accessibility of young people. Along with nine other young leaders situated all around Australia, Consumers Health Forum of Australia formed an executive leadership group at the beginning of the year to support the Chief Executive Officer to represent the Youth Health Forum annually. My role is to participate and work with Primary Health Networks and other relevant health organisations to raise awareness of youth health issues and to ensure youth insights are foremost in their needs assessments and commissioning decisions.

We do this by developing resources for young people with information about the health system, their rights, and entitlements, and help them to better navigate through the healthcare system. This is in direct cooperation with Australian health ministers and the Australian Digital Agency. I’m also there to assist in designing an awards scheme for youth health service innovation with adolescent health and health system researchers, the philanthropic sector, PHNs and others.

What makes me so grateful for the role is that it essentially encapsulates all my ambitions and strengths into one position. I’m able to work closely to shape Australia’s healthcare system, being an aspiring healthcare practitioner myself, whilst also integrating my love for writing, advocacy and public speaking into the numerous projects that CHF and the Youth Health Forum has got going around Australia. I do not take it for granted as I know that at 19 years-old, this is an opportunity of a lifetime and I want to make the most of it.

  • What unique perspectives and value do you bring to leadership discussions as someone who is a writer, advocate and also a full-time student? 

Believe it or not, even though I am involved in those roles, what people mainly point out and what makes me stick out like a sore thumb is when they say, “You’re only 19…why are you doing all this?”. I’m then told about the other things that people my age should be doing that are more “fun”.

In the first few times I was asked that, I felt like I had to rehearse a perfect response that would justify their inquiry. But over time and coming back to your question, I realized that the main piece of value that I can bring to leadership discussions is that I am striving to be a multifaceted young person and this is what I have to say about the experiences I have. When you’re involved with so many projects and groups of people, you can’t help but understand the various cultures, mentalities and upbringing that exists in Australia’s youth.

My leadership style has always been to lead by example. Whether that be in school, university or my professional career, I thrive on the ability to take accountability. So, when I look at these young people motivated to make the world a better place but feeling unheard, I realize that I have a deeper responsibility to speak up for them. Whether it be through giving a speech in parliament or being invited as a guest speaker, my natural tendency is to ask myself first and foremost – how can I shine a light on the struggles of these people so that the next generation don’t have to face it.

This allows me to be bring two crucial elements that I always fall back on and that is resilience and empathy. The times when I’m knee deep with deadlines and events, I’m able to understand what it’s like for young people around Australia who are afraid of when their next meal will be and how they’re going to pay for their rent. Even if the context is different, I force myself to bring empathy and emotional intelligence to discussions that pertain to how young people are feeling and the concerns they have.

As a first-generation migrant myself, I’ve seen what it’s like for my parents to move to a country that was diametrically opposite to what they were used to. They were very young themselves and what makes me feel disheartened is that a lot of their hardships that they faced along the way is still a pressing issue faced by many youths today. Awareness on mental health, the transition from education to employment and health literacy are a few that need to highlighted. It is through these experiences of the people around me do I feel like I can best emit their concerns and demands, formulating them into productive dialogue.

  • What’s your message to other students who are struggling and feeling overwhelmed by everything that’s happened this year?

The answer to this question is something I find that I’m learning more about on a daily basis. First and foremost, I would urge all students to hang in there. We are going through a tumultuous period as a planet that no one could have predicted. But faith must not be lost. History has shown us that no matter how difficult the period is, civilizations have rebuilt, and people have bounced back. Resilience is an important focal point of discussion that we need to implement as individuals and as a community. You can call me an optimist but seeing first-hand the passion and fervour young people are displaying in protests, against the injustices and with each other during the past few months gives me the right to be hopeful. Young people are showing us that even in the face of adversity like a fatal virus, they are going out of their way to join movements and take matters into their own hands to address issues.

Keep raising your voices. Keep using your platforms to contribute to movements. Keep being ambitious and proactive. We need more of this, not less. Once we put all this effort in, time will be the factor that allows this hard work to turn into meaningful change. Seek justice unapologetically. We are all privileged to live in a country where we have free will and liberty to make decisions on our own. But we must be responsible with this opportunity. To me, free will isn’t about doing whatever we want. Having free will is about using the privilege to do good for those that don’t have the same liberty. Let us foster a culture of generosity for those more vulnerable than us. That is my message to Australia’s youth.

About the expert

Jahin Tanvir is a 19-year-old optometry student, speaker, writer, policy adviser and youth advocate whose key aspirations reside in providing equitable healthcare, meaningful youth advocacy and health research. With a penchant of being multifaceted, Jahin possesses a strong background in youth leadership and advocacy in leading youth-led organisations such as Oaktree, World Vision, Red Cross and the United Nations to name a few. Being a first-generation migrant hailing from Bangladesh, Jahin feels an innate responsibility to elevate the voices of young migrants and communities through his work. He has represented Australia on the global stage and in various conferences and forums with highlights including being invited to speak at the Parliament House, guest speaker at the Australasian Aid conference at the Australian National University and as an Australian delegate at the Global Model United Nations in Rome. Jahin sits on two not-for-profit boards with aspirations to become a community role model in the capacity of clinical optometrist, author, and global health pioneer for young people. As a result of his work in youth leadership, Jahin was awarded the ‘New and Emerging community leader’ scholarship, ‘Service to others’ award by the Parliament of Australia and ‘Young Changemaker award’. He is a published writer with various articles published on mediums such as UNICEF, The Centre of Research Excellence in Adolescent Health, The Conversation, WhyNot with a co-author credit for a short story anthology book being published in 2020. 

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