Children feel the brunt of unemployment woes, experiencing mental health difficulties

by Freya Lucas

March 05

Children who are living in homes where one or both parents are unemployed may be experiencing mental health difficulties from as young as six, Emerging Minds (previously known as the Australian Infant, Child, Adolescent and Family Mental Health Association – AICAFMHA) has said.

 

The organisation has welcomed a recommendation from the Australian Research Alliance for Children and Youth (ARACY) report To have and to have not that the Federal Government prioritises prevention and early intervention to improve the mental health of children and infants.

 

The ARACY investigation examined deprivation levels across the general population of Australian children, and specifically those children living with a disability, those living in monetary poverty, and those living in jobless families.

 

The investigation found that 10 per cent of children aged six to seven displayed signs of social emotional distress, with Emerging Minds Director Brad Morgan saying the impact of financial adversity on children’s emotional wellbeing becomes more evident over time.

 

“Children, particularly infants and younger children, are sensitive to family stress. If this stress is chronic, as is often the case with issues highlighted in this report, it can lead to emotional and behavioural problems and eventually mental health difficulties,” Mr Morgan said.

 

The distress experienced by children becomes apparent in two key ways, Mr Morgan said. Children will externalise their feelings and act out through anger and frustration, or children will become hyper vigilant, ‘walking on eggshells’ so as not to upset their parents or cause more stress at home.

 

Early intervention and support, through organisations such as Emerging Minds, has “been proven to change the mental health outcomes of children” Mr Morgan said, outlining that Federal Government funding allowed Emerging Minds to work with health practitioners and service providers to build their capacity to support children’s mental health.

 

“Unemployment and financial disadvantage are complex issues that need multi-faceted solutions that relieve the financial pressure and reduce the impact of hardships on a child’s emotional wellbeing,” he said.

 

“A strong focus of our work at Emerging Minds is supporting professionals who traditionally haven’t had a focus on children, particularly services working with adults experiencing issues such as poverty, and physical or mental illness for example. We’re helping them to have collaborative conversations with parents about the children in their lives and look at ways to support their wellbeing.

 

“The intervention can start with the conversations that health professionals and service providers have with parents, so that they are addressing not only the economic aspects of unemployment for example, but the emotional impact on the wider family.”

 

Mr Morgan suggests outcomes can be changed when services working with adults:

 

  • routinely identify whether their clients have children;

 

  • sensitively explore how the issues experienced by the family are impacting on family routines, relationships and community involvement;

 

  • provide families with information and links to support for children; and,  

 

  • help parents to know the early signs of mental health difficulties in infants and children, and where to access help.

 

“Asking parents whether they’ve noticed their children interacting differently in tough times, how they think the child might feel about what is happening at home and how household routines are affected all help open the door to early intervention for children,” he said.

 

The key to supporting children to be mentally well during a turbulent period such as unemployment, whether short or long term, is to support the family as a holistic unit, and pay close attention to the children, Mr Morgan said.

 

“If we support families in the early years we can make a significant difference to their emotional health and wellbeing not just in the short term, but into the future,” he added.

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