More mental health help needed for country children from a younger age, charity says
Children in rural and remote areas of Australia are needing more support for their mental health and at a younger age, Dr Josephine Anderson, Consultant Child and Adolescent Psychiatrist at children’s health charity, Royal Far West has said.
Triple threats posed by the ongoing drought, bushfires and COVID-19 have combined to dramatically increase the demand for psychology services in the bush, including for young children.
Recent figures from Royal Far West show the volume of psychological therapy delivered by telehealth is now six times what it was three years ago. Psychology services delivered by Royal Far West via Telecare (including assessment, therapy and school counselling) accounted for one in five therapy sessions in the past financial year compared to one in 20 in FY2017.
Royal Far West’s specialist Paediatric Developmental Program (PDP), which is aimed at children with complex developmental, behavioural and mental health issues, has also seen a significant increase in demand for psychology and psychiatry services.
A recent review of PDP clients shows that psychology is now the highest needed support service with nearly half of all clients referred to a psychology service, but with only around one in five (16.5 per cent) able to access these services locally.
Local psychology services in rural and regional areas often have long wait lists, and/or are a long way from where people reside, Dr Anderson said.
Noting the importance of early intervention in mental health issues, Dr Anderson said early intervention “can really make the difference between kids flying and failing in early school years” and that often the first symptoms of emotional and behavioural disturbance develop up to four years before serious mental health problems become apparent in children.
“This often sets the trajectory for further down the track,” she said.
“Half of all mental health problems occur for the first time below the age of 15. This includes severe anxiety disorders, the commonest group of mental health disorders in children and adults. Getting in early with highly anxious children – and their families – can make a big difference to how well these children do at school – socially, behaviourally and academically – and in later life,” Dr Anderson added.
Children with problem behaviours such as aggression can struggle at school, she said, both in learning and in their relationships with their teachers and with other children. Psychological treatments can work well for children and their families, especially if early intervention is offered.
Dr Anderson said preschools, GPs and practice nurses were ideally placed to start conversations with parents about their child’s emotional and behavioural development as they prepare to enter school for the first time.
“School readiness should encompass all domains of a child’s development, including their social and emotional wellbeing. It is imperative we ask the right questions of parents about their children in these important areas and do it early,” she said.
“Mental health in rural and remote communities is an ongoing area of great unmet need.
Bushfires, drought and COVID-19 have caused heightened and recurrent stress and distress in young children and their families. Intervening early to promote the mental health and wellbeing of young children is the first step toward a mentally healthier population across their lifespan,” Dr Anderson said in closing.
Further information about the work of Royal Far West may be found on their website, here.