It is well understood that preventing poor physical health from developing in children, or addressing physical illness in its earliest stages, is preferable to dealing with the distressing and resource intensive ramifications of acute or chronic conditions.
While we have processes and programs for addressing early issues with physical health, do we have the same level of focus for dealing with the mental health problems our children experience, or preventing them in the first place?
Last week I tabled in the WA Parliament a report which provides an overview of progress made in the delivery of mental health programs and services since the Commissioner for Children and Young People’s 2011 Inquiry into the mental health and wellbeing of WA children and young people.
This report, titled Our Children Can’t Wait, found that while progress has been made in some areas, particularly increased services for young people, significant gaps remain and there is an imperative to establish a strong foundation of positive mental health in childhood and early adolescence.
In general, the report identifies the need for greater recognition that lifelong positive mental health begins in pregnancy, and that children can and do experience mental health disorders from early in life.
The recent Young Minds Matter Survey found Australian children (4 to 11 years) suffered from mental disorders at a similar rate to 12 to 17 year-olds, around 14 per cent. In Western Australia this equates to approximately 60,000 children and young people.
While the majority of these disorders are not severe, they still impact children’s relationships with family and friends, academic performance and other areas of wellbeing, but we are not allocating sufficient priority to addressing these needs.
Also released last week was the Western Australian Mental Health, Alcohol and Other Drug Services Plan 2015-2025.
I congratulate the State Government for the strong reference this plan makes to children and young people throughout. However, we need to be clear that this plan alone will not provide the comprehensive range of programs required to build and maintain strong mental health from birth.
The plan is focused on the needs of people who are experiencing severe mental illness, and this is obviously vital, but we must also establish the full spectrum of services and programs for children and young people with mild and moderate disorders.
As with physical health, we must not wait for children’s mental illness to become severe; even those with just the early signs of problems deserve access to services and programs to minimise the impact and give them the best chance to recover.
Based on the analysis undertaken by the Commissioner’s office, the report Our Children Can’t Wait makes 12 recommendations to establish a comprehensive approach to children and young people’s mental health.
One of these recommendations calls for services in the Mental Health, Alcohol and Other Drug Services Plan 2015-2025 for children and young people with severe mental illness or who are vulnerable to be fully resourced and implemented, as the plan is currently unfunded.
It also calls for State and Commonwealth Governments to work together to increase resources for children and better coordinate support for parents to promote good mental health and provide early intervention for those with mild and moderate disorders.
Other recommendations of Our Children Can’t Wait include an expansion of the services Child and Parent Centres deliver to include mental health programs, and an increase in the number of these Centres to improve accessibility for families across the State.
Similarly, the capacity of schools must be strengthened to provide better access to mental health services for children and young people, as this is where the vast majority of children and young people spend significant amounts of time.
Schools and teachers must be resourced to better support students’ mental health, including improved access to mental health professionals and referral services to ensure they can intervene early and appropriately as soon as issues arise.
In our vast State we must develop more flexible and innovative methods to improve services to children and young people in regional and remote areas.
Aboriginal children and young people represent a higher proportion of the population in some regional and remote areas, and there must be an emphasis on developing programs and services to meet the specific needs of these vulnerable children.
I am pleased the State and Commonwealth Governments have made some progress in supporting children and young people’s mental health, and are looking to continue this improvement.
I will be working with government and the community to advocate for the 12 recommendations to be implemented, and will be monitoring and reporting on progress.
Our children can’t wait any longer for the mental health services they need.
Commissioner for Children and Young People WA
*As submitted to The West Australian – 14 December 2015
Our Children Can’t Wait is available from www.ccyp.wa.gov.au