New research commissioned by national infant and child mental health advocate Emerging Minds has shown that approximately 75 per cent of Australian children with mental health concerns are not receiving support or treatment, painting the first-ever picture of the gap in care and the challenge to improving Australia’s mental prosperity.
The Trajectories of children’s social-emotional wellbeing: The Longitudinal Study of Australian Children research used interviews with parents and an analysis of Medical Benefits Scheme records for 4,300 children aged 4 to 13 years of age to reach its conclusions, finding that fewer than one in four children with mental health problems had accessed treatment or support in the past 18 months.
Despite at least two thirds of children having seen a GP at least once in the year preceding the study, and children at increased risk of social and emotional problems having had greater contact with a range services, from psychiatric and behavioural therapy services, to paediatricians, speech therapists, and hospital outpatient and emergency services, support remained absent.
Children missing out on care were also more likely to live in lower income households or in regional areas and their parents were more likely to seek out parenting support services and groups.
Emerging Minds’ Director Brad Morgan said the findings highlight the barriers to accessing treatment and support, and the crucial role frontline health professionals can play in identifying early symptoms of child mental health problems.
Signs of these difficulties include emotional outbursts, inappropriate or unacceptable conduct, hyperactivity, and peer problems such as tending to play alone, getting along better with adults than other children or being picked on or bullied by other children.
“Half of all adult mental health problems begin in childhood and we know early intervention and prevention is key in changing mental health outcomes,” Mr Morgan said.
“Children at increased risk of mental health problems are seeing medical professionals, including GPs and paediatricians more frequently. However, many do not access services that specifically address mental health issues, such as psychologists and psychiatric and behavioural therapy services.”
Outlining the challenges facing Australian parents, Mr Morgan explained that the Australian health system “is not designed to respond to emerging issues in childhood and so when parents seek help for their children, diagnosis and treatment is often delayed or insufficient.”
There is a critical need, he continued, for frontline medical, health and social support professionals to be able to identify children who may be at risk of mental health problems and provide their parents with advice or referrals to services that may prevent these problems from developing into more serious issues.
As the demand for mental health services for children and adolescents grows, Emerging Minds has partnered with the Royal Australian College of General Practice (RACGP) to develop a range of evidence-based tools, training and resources to build the medical profession’s expertise in identifying children who may be at risk, which may be accessed here.
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