Childhood intervention is one of the key areas of reform required in Australia’s mental health and suicide prevention system, according to a new report.
The National Mental Health Commission (NMHC) 2018 report card says early years are among the most important social determinants of health, and can have lifelong effects on people's circumstances.
“Good mental health starts in infancy, so it is essential that parents, carers and early childhood educators are skilled and supported to give children the best start toward a lifetime of good mental health,” NMHC interim CEO Maureen Lewis said.
The report, launched ahead of World Mental Health Day on October 10, cites research estimating that 560,000 Australians aged four to 17 had a mental illness in 2013-14.
“Research has shown that the first symptoms of mental illness typically precede the full onset of the illness by two to four years, and that poor mental health in childhood and adolescence can lead to mental illness in adulthood.
“With more than half of lifetime mental illness developing before the age of 14 years, prevention and early intervention at the earliest stage can make a huge difference,” the report said.
However, it cited a recent survey by the Royal Children's Hospital Melbourne that found the majority of Australian parents are not confident in identifying or responding to signs of mental illness in their child, and less than half would know where to go for help.
More than a third of parents surveyed thought their child's mental illness might be best left to 'work itself out' over time.
The NMHC report said mental illness not only affected children's academic performance at all school levels, but also significantly contributed to attendance problems – depression and anxiety can cause absences of up to 23 days a year, depending on the age group.
“The effect of mental illness in adolescence on school attendance and participation could potentially be prevented through early detection and intervention in childhood,” the report said.
While the government spent an extra $46 million this year on its new integrated school-based Mental Health in Education initiative, the NMHC said mental health support needs to be established much earlier in the life cycle – for new mothers and families, for infants and in early childhood.
It suggests integrating maternal and child health services into 'childspaces' – centres for children's wellbeing – through Primary Health Networks working together with local communities.
The report also covers the strong link between physical and mental health, the elimination of seclusion and restraint in mental health facilities, and the delivery of the National Disability Insurance Scheme.
Meanwhile, the NMHC has welcomed the government's decision to set up an inquiry into the role of mental health in the Australian economy.
The Productivity Commission will look at the best ways to support and improve national mental wellbeing, it was announced at the start of Mental Health Week.
“The examination of how sectors beyond health – including education, employment, social services, housing and justice – contribute to mental health outcomes will ensure future investment is effective and improves the outcomes for all Australians,” NMHC chair Lucy Brogden said.