Year 9 boot camps could be the key to lift teen spirit

In May, I wrote a column about the multifaceted angst of my generation – Generation X – including anxieties about our children in the aftermath of Melbourne’s singularly harsh lockdowns.

If you’ll excuse the self-referencing, I said the lockdowns “and the attendant immersion in social media, exacerbated an epidemic of isolation, self-loathing and obsessive disorders among young people”.

During the prolonged school and university closures, parents watched their children becoming listless and withdrawn. Credit:iStock

It’s a theme I’d touched on frequently during the prolonged school and university closures as parents watched their children becoming listless and withdrawn. And it’s a theme reflected in the statistics and expert reports showing lockdowns inflicted a disproportionate mental health burden on the young.

Little of this will be news, but to cover some grim bases: paediatric intensive care units in Australia and New Zealand found an increase in admissions of 12- to 17 year-olds following “deliberate self harm” that coincided with lockdowns and restrictions in 2020-21; an Australian study in the Archives of Disease in Childhood found a 104 per cent spike in children with anorexia nervosa being admitted to hospital in 2020 compared with the previous three years; and more generally, the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare recorded a 25 per cent jump in the number of people seeking mental health services last year compared with the same period pre-pandemic.

Nor has the distress magically reversed since restrictions eased; indeed, the Andrews government has ramped up investment in mental health interventions in schools. This is a crisis with a long tail.

All the same, my May column was so dark it prompted an RUOK? check-in from my editor and reciprocal angst from readers.

“What do they need from us?” asked one friend, referring to these kids of Generation Covid.

I mulled over the question in the following weeks, and then, in the deep recesses of memory, stumbled on the outline of an answer.

My recovered memory was of Labor’s campaign launch during the 2010 state election. Premier John Brumby announced a policy centrepiece: the Year 9 experience, a $208 million program to engage a cohort at risk of disengagement. Under Brumby’s plan the 14- to 15-year-olds would spend at least two weeks away from home learning skills for adult life; bushfire awareness, water safety, first aid, self-defence, drug and alcohol education, home budgeting, seeing how the other half lives as city kids would be sent to the country, and country kids to the city.

The program “would change the way in which we invest in a new generation of Victorians”, Brumby had said. Predictably, the idea was reduced in the media to “Brumby’s boot camp”.

Former Victorian premier John Brumby. Credit:Paul Jeffers

At the time I was broadly approving – what was not to like? – but also couldn’t shake the sense that if this was the meatiest policy a government seeking a fourth term could roll out they were probably out of steam.

But if ever the plan’s time has come it is now. The Andrews government ought to revive the proposal and make it longer and more ambitious to boot. Other state governments might want to adopt it too. Whether the experience should be confined to Year 9s is for the experts to nut out.

I suspect some teachers are eye-rolling as we speak; as it is, staff shortages and sick season mean schools are barely coping with normal programming let alone exotic extras. But staffing in a range of sectors is a problem policymakers will be forced to seriously tackle, regardless. Meanwhile, the “exotic extra” must be redefined as essential.

Somewhat lost in the “boot camp” debate 12 years ago was Brumby’s compelling social equity pitch. He noted many private schools offered well-resourced and adventurous Year 9 programs; his plan would extend comparable opportunities to all Victorian children.

One elite school markets itself heavily on a program that has Year 9s living a year in the high country; landscape painting, skiing, taking science classes by the river, and going cold turkey on digital communication. Kids write letters home – on paper – like in pre-internet days. The FAQ on the school’s website don’t include the cost, probably because it’s better you don’t ask.

I imagine such a program would be transformative for some, for others a bucolic hell. Either way it would amount to life, vividly experienced, and that’s usually fertile ground for personal growth.

The state opposition has sought political advantage from lingering resentment over Victoria’s lockdowns in general and school closures in particular. The Andrews government can recognise the anger is real without conceding it is justified. Making amends would be both politically smart and the right thing to do.

Making amends must go further than mobilising armies of mental health professionals to medicalise our children’s emotional pain, however necessary that might be as a first line of defence. Beyond emergency relief, our children are crying out for opportunities to foster resilience and emotional strength.

The answer to my friend’s question what do our children need from us is simple: they need us to repay, with interest, the time, the life experience, that was taken from them.

In the same vein, I have a proposal for beyond school-aged youth. But I’ve run out of room, so will leave you on this cliffhanger till next time.

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