Mental Health, Substance Use and Discrimination – Three Key Issues for Australian Young People

By June 3, 2019 No Comments

Jennifer Debenham is one of the researchers who will be heading up the Matilda Centre Featured Symposium: Mental Health, Substance Use and Discrimination – Three Key Issues for Australian Young People at TheMHS Conference in Brisbane this August.

We spoke with Jennifer to find out about her interest in this field and what we can expect to take away from the symposium.

1. How did you first become involved in the mental health field?
I’ve always been fascinated by the role substances play in society and the relationship between drug use, mental health and neuroscience. Often a black and white picture is portrayed in the media yet as a young person, you’re presented with a million shades of grey, so I decided to investigate the social disconnect that I saw in my own life. In my undergraduate studies I found myself co-founding a drug and alcohol prevention program, known as the illicit Project, that aims to use neuroscience to upskill young people in certain drug and mental health literacies. In my doctoral thesis I am now evaluating the effectiveness of the program and also investigating the power of neuroscience to engage a heterogeneous cohort of users and non-users in non-judgemental, harm-minimisation. This includes providing all students with strategies and tools to recognise and respond to unhealthy behaviours in themselves and others. Outside of academia, I’m involved in community programs and I couldn’t think of a better place to work! This field marries my interests in neuroscience and human psychology, constantly challenges my own social paradigms and I hope to continue learning more in the years to come!

2.Why should people come and listen to your symposium at TheMHS Conference?
Have you ever wondered what alcohol really does to the growing brain? Do you know why drugs make people feel good? Is it true that the brain never stops changing and responding to the environment? How agile do you think your brain is?!
If you want to learn more about the most complex thing in the known universe, then come down to the Matilda Centre symposium at TheMHS Conference! Here, you’ll find out about the latest scientific discoveries in substance use and the growing adolescent brain… But don’t just take our word for it – see it for yourself, observe how the brain grows and develops and appreciate how substances work to influence this system. Neuroplasticity means that the brain you had yesterday may not necessarily function the same as today, so to play to your mental strengths and develop more effective neural pathways devoid of damage, come join us for an interesting hour of brain power! After all, we all have neurons working for us, let’s not fire them all at once.

3.What’s one thing not many people know about you?
People don’t know that growing up, I use to breed pet snakes. It started when my brother found a 10cm long golden-crown snake in our backyard and then quickly became 2m long diamond pythons which gave to 13 babies! Safe to say that not many of my friends shared my enthusiasm towards the cute hatchlings…

4.Why are you looking forward to coming to Brisbane?
I am most looking forward to escaping the wind chills of Sydney and spending time in the tropical Queensland weather. Plus, it’s my birth place!

5. Where can people find out more about your work?
TheMHS Conference – join us at the Matilda Centre Symposium
The Matilda Centre Website https://sydney.edu.au/research/centres/matilda-centre.html
Debenham, J., Newton, N., Birrell, L., Askovic, M. (2019). Alcohol and other drug prevention for older adolescents: It’s a no brainer. Drug and Alcohol Review, 38(4):327-330


PhD Candidate at The Matilda Centre, Usyd.

Jennifer Debenham                PhD Candidate at The Matilda Centre, Usyd.