Journal publishes ACAP graduate’s country town anxiety research

Posted by Virginia on 29 June 2018

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As milestones go, finishing postgraduate study is hard to beat, but for Mahalia Scholz, academic success was topped when her final-year Master of Counselling and Psychotherapy research paper was published in an industry journal.

Memories of high school days in rural Victoria inspired Mahalia Scholz’s Master of Counselling and Psychotherapy thesis. In exploring ideas for her final paper, the Australian College of Applied Psychology (ACAP) graduate drew on personal experiences, as well as current data relating to adolescent anxiety, to identify a research ‘gap’.

Mahalia’s academic curiosity was recognised by the journal, Counselling Australia, which published her research in its autumn edition. The article is an endorsement of the counselling sector’s efforts to support Australia’s regional students to navigate the challenging senior high school years.

Developing a thesis topic

Postgraduate research must be either the study of an unexplored hypothesis or further research into existing ideas, in line with professional counselling academia norms. Mahalia, who is a peer rehabilitation and support worker at a not-for-profit mental health organisation, saw potential in the familiar subject matter of her turbulent teenage years.

“I live and grew up in regional towns across North East Victoria and while I enjoy rural life, I distinctly remember the smaller class sizes and limited opportunities for subject choice at secondary school,” she said.

“I experienced stress at high school between years 10 and 12, as I felt I had to make so many decisions about my future in such a short time. This is what led me to focus my thesis on mental health in regional areas, particularly in the adolescent domain.”

At the early planning stages of her study, Mahalia discovered two key statistics that went on to shape her research. With her regional Australian upbringing and having experienced mental health issues as a teen, the merger of information with motivation ultimately resulted in her successful paper, ‘An Analysis of Anxiety Provoking Stimuli in Regional, Secondary Students’.

“In regard to existing research, I noticed anxiety was at its highest in the population for the age bracket 16-25. Furthering this, I gathered a multitude of data on the adult outcomes of anxiety in teen years. I found, amongst other outcomes lower employment rates after secondary school, higher incidences of self-harm and suicide, and a greater prevalence of poor mental health. However, there was no information about what was stimulating this anxiety in young people,” she said.

“Next, I researched the geographical prevalence of anxiety in Australia, which showed that diagnosed anxiety disorders are at their highest in regional and rural areas, compared to their metropolitan counterparts.”

Mahalia had found a research gap that intensified her passion for understanding anxiety stimuli in adolescents. Her study’s purpose was to understand why anxiety is so prevalent in country towns.

“Combining these two constructs was essential for me to address the question: What stimulates anxiety in regional, secondary school students?” she said.

Interviews with senior high school students living in regional Australia were the foundation of Mahalia’s comprehensive study. Three themes were established from the collated responses, and ten subthemes emerged for exploration in her final paper. Her finished work is the first project to explore anxiety-provoking stimuli in regionally located adolescents.

Publishing the story

With graduation secured, Mahalia was keen to publish her research. She shortlisted three mental health publications and adjusted her paper to meet word count and style guidelines.

“All submissions needed me to de-identify myself and any association with my education provider, for a ‘blind’ review by the publishers,” said Mahalia.

“I was offered publication with a 2000-word limit but felt I would lose the richness of my paper. However, the Australian Counselling Association accepted my thesis with only minor adjustments, for its Autumn 2018 edition of Counselling Australia.”

Feedback has been positive since her work went public, and Mahalia is enjoying making a small difference to both the counselling and educational fields as a result of her initiative and hard work.

“Local businesses, particularly ones that coordinate mental health recovery and youth outreach services, have commented on the value of knowing about such a topic,” she said.

“Specifically, one person commented that she better understands why anxiety may persist after secondary school and, as she works in education, she can now better recognise factors in her classroom that will contribute to adverse mental health outcomes later in life.”

Counselling career path

Originally set on becoming a clinical psychologist, Mahalia switched to counselling after completing her undergraduate degree in psychological science.

“The flexibility and the ability to use many therapeutic modalities in counselling and psychotherapy drew me to want to practice,” she said.

“In my current role, I have a caseload of participants that require intensive and long-term support. I work with each participant to improve functioning in areas such as daily living skills, mental health management, social connections, self-esteem and identity, employment and volunteering, in order to aid their recovery from a holistic approach.”

Being a touchpoint of personal support appeals to Mahalia. She works closely with other mental health services and government agencies, in an integrated approach centred on advocacy and outreach.

“The aspect I find most rewarding is face-to-face contact,” she said.

“To work with such brilliant participants, all with very different needs and desires makes working in mental health so rewarding. I am absolutely privileged to support individuals who have faced many challenges and in spite of adversity, still attempt to better themselves and learn to live as individuals outside of their diagnosis. For clients to witness growth that separates them from their mental illness is similar to the benefits of counselling itself.”

School program potential  

A PhD using her ACAP postgraduate thesis as a framework is likely in Mahalia’s future, but for now she is focused on her career. Mahalia is PACFA registered and intends to open a private practice for adolescents in the form of a mobile service offering generalised support for the local teen community. Meanwhile, an idea is germinating for a practical extension of her research program, in the form of a high school roadshow.

“My current publication focussed on identifying what creates anxiety. In the future I would like to identify what could successfully resolve it,” said Mahalia.

“I would like to implement a regional and remote school program targeting and combating each of the stimuli that arose in my study, measuring students’ before-and-after anxiety levels.”