Helping vulnerable adolescents find their voice

Michelle Platcher sees a future for herself in advocacy work.
Michelle Platcher sees a future for herself in advocacy work.

If Michelle Platcher could give any advice to her younger self, it would be this: “Trust yourself. No matter what, always follow what you feel most passionate about. At the end of the day, your passion is going to lead you where you want to go.”

Michelle’s passion has led her to a fascinating area of research. The winner of the UTS Insearch Alumni Prize for Semester One, 2018, not only completed her degree, but is now a PhD candidate at UTS in the Faculty of Arts and Social Science (FASS).

She is investigating how the Starlight Children’s Foundation online community – – supports adolescents living with a chronic illness or disability. She’s particularly interested the ways the website facilitates peer connections to help build the resilience of these vulnerable young people.

The stimulus for Michelle’s PhD came from personal experience. Growing up, she saw the struggles of her older sister, who has a heart condition, and her brother who has an intellectual disability.

“My family as at the heart of it,” she says. “They’re the biggest rock behind me. They’re my biggest inspiration.”

Helping vulnerable adolescents speak for themselves

The Livewire online community is a place where young people can swap stories, ask for ideas, and talk about what’s happening in their lives, from operations, MRIs and tests, to issues with family and friends.

As soon as she explored the site, Michelle knew she had found her PhD project. “My first thought was, ‘this is a fantastic thing to research’,” she says.

"My project is all about supporting adolescents’ identity development and helping them believe in themselves. That’s what the online community helps them achieve in certain ways. Working in this area, I can help give back a voice to adolescents and people with disabilities. I’m not speaking for them – they’re speaking for themselves. It’s a privilege to be in this position.”

A study journey that began at UTS Insearch

Looking back on the journey to ultimately get to her PhD, Michelle appreciates the start she got at UTS Insearch.

“I’m happy I experienced that,” she says. “I think it was the right path for me. You get so much more support. The classes are so much smaller and the staff were incredible. There were times when I doubted myself. For example, when I was really stressed over my first essay, I remember my lecturer saying, ‘No, no. You can do this.’

"The support was amazing, and now my main goal is to give back with my PhD and help the communities that mean so much to me.”

Michelle sees a future for herself in advocacy work.

“I hope to be able to bring in best-practice models for people designing interventions because there’s a real lack of an adolescent voice right now. My current research is finding ways to support adolescents’ identity development and helping them to believe in themselves.

"Adolescents who are ill, or have a disability, don’t want to be defined by their condition. I learnt this from my brother and sister, and I’m grateful for the perspective that life experience gave me. It showed me where I wanted to go.”