More than 50 per cent of kids with mental health issues aren't getting any help. Here's how the government plans to fix that

Stephanie Dalzell

Half of Australian kids with mental illness aren't getting timely professional help and less than a third of parents used services to help their struggling child, according to official government figures.

The figures are startling, especially given half of all adults with mental illness begin experiencing symptoms at a young age.

A new government strategy aims to address that, to fix a system bogged down by lengthy wait lists, and high out-of-pocket costs.

Let's take a look at what the National Children's Mental Health and Wellbeing Strategy found, and its recommendations to help kids.

What's the strategy all about?

The National Children's Mental Health and Wellbeing Strategy is a world-first, and provides a framework to help support the mental health and wellbeing of children 12 and younger, as well as their families.

It was developed by the National Mental Health Commission and supported by an expert advisory group, based on months of consultation with the sector.

An aerial view of a table with pens and paints, and a child's hand making craft with rocks

Experts have warned of the toll extended COVID lockdowns could have on children's mental health.(Unplash: Sigmund OV)

The strategy states that despite best efforts of governments over the years, providing equitable, appropriate and timely access to mental health services for children has been "problematic."

It said there is no "real system" of affordable care for children and that it's really hard for children or families to access any help, with lengthy waitlists, high out-of-pocket costs and a shortage of specialists the key issues.

"The thing that I found the most troubling was the financial side of it," one young person with mental illness said in the report.

"I have been seeking therapy for four years now and I've only just realised that my psychologist outside of school, I can't see her anymore because I don't have the funding… I don't have enough money to go see her. "

If you or anyone you know needs help:

Executive director of youth mental health service Orygen, Pat McGorry, said access has consistently been a huge issue for young people.

"We don't have these cohesive multidisciplinary teams, you know, in accessible community locations or working together, we have a fragmented dispersed system," Professor McGorry said.

"There are lots of financial barriers, and there are some significant shortage of child psychiatrists."

The report also noted 7 out of 10 of the most common presentations to paediatricians were mental health-related, and Professor McGorry said it emphasised the need for more specialists.

"Paediatricians are carrying a big part of the burden but they're not trained in mental health, particularly, so we definitely need child psychiatrists working alongside paediatricians much more strongly."

Access is particularly hard for kids outside of the city.

About 30 per cent of all Australian children 14 and under live in rural areas, and for many the nearest mental health services are a long distance away.

"Parents as well as many professionals have difficulty navigating a fragmented service system; and there are long waiting lists for assessment and treatment for all but the most severe problems," the report states.

What is the strategy proposing?

The strategy focuses on eight main principles, like ensuring all children and families can access care and trying to prevent mental illness by promoting wellbeing.

A table of eight principles that are the foundations of the mental health strategy for children

The strategy is built on eight principles identified by the government.(Supplied)

It lists several objectives to improve the mental health of children, and many centre around looking at the entire family unit, rather than a child in isolation.

Those include helping parents recognise the signs of poor mental health in their child, with the strategy noting an overwhelming 66 per cent of parents don't know where to get help.

Another one is ensuring families can access timely treatment, with increased resources and training to help them access support.

There are also new Medicare items being introduced, which will allow providers like psychologists to claim government rebates for consultations with parents and carers as part of a child's mental health treatment, without the child being there.

What else does it recommend?

The strategy makes a wide range of recommendations, including increased resources for public mental health services for children 12 and under, and more affordable training to help GPs and paediatricians.

It also recommends governments incentivise training opportunities for mental health professionals in regional areas.

The strategy also says it's important to identify and invest in communities that could benefit most from support, such as those with high unemployment and high incidence of child abuse or neglect.

And it wants a national system to pool information related to child mental health, gathered when a kid gets a routine development check or vaccination.

Why is this important?

Data from the Australian Child and Adolescent Survey of Mental Health and Wellbeing Study indicates that only around half of all children who experienced mental illness in the last 12 months had accessed any help, and less than a third of parents used services to help support their child who was struggling.

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There's also evidence that the majority of children with mental illness in Australia do not have enough contact with health professionals to allow for minimum standards of treatment to be provided.

Throw in a once-in-a-century pandemic and the risk increases exponentially.

Professor McGorry said early intervention was crucial in helping prevent mental illness later on in life.

"The risk factors the drivers of mental health operate during early childhood and right through childhood, and they conspire to produce the kind of wave of new cases of mental health and we see in adolescence and young adults, so focusing on children is truly important."

What's the government doing?

Assistant Minister to the Prime Minister for Mental Health and Suicide Prevention, David Coleman, said the Strategy was part of the Morrison government's long-term national health plan.

A young boy play with trains for a story on early puberty in children.

David Coleman said initiatives aim to begin care as soon as a child is born, with perinatal mental health screening.(Pexels: Pavel Danilyuk)

He said the strategy is aimed at addressing a gap in care for younger children

"We know that about half of all mental health issues are first arise by the age of 14, so it's incredibly important to be focused on helping kids that develop mental health issues, and equally as importantly helping families," he said.

Mr Coleman says the government plans to take on all the recommendations, and has already implemented some as part of its $2.3 billion National Mental Health and Suicide Prevention Plan.

That includes new "Head to Health" kids mental health and wellbeing centres for children up to 12 years, to provide a physical place for kids and their families to go when they need help.

Other mental initiatives aim to begin care as soon as a child is born, with perinatal mental health screening.

"What that means is screening families and parents around the time of when kids are born, looking for any mental health issues that may be there or that may be going to arise with the parents, and providing support to those parents as early as we can, that's good for the parents, and it's good for the kids," Mr Coleman said.

"We want to help kids and their families deal with mental health issues early to give them the best possible future. That's really the essence of what this strategy is about."

Posted 11 Oct 202111 Oct 2021, updated at 9:22amTue 12 Oct 2021 at 9:22am