Country kids need more mental health support and at a younger age

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Dr Josephine Anderson
Royal Far West
Dr Josephine Anderson, Consultant Child and Adolescent Psychiatrist and Clinical Director

Children in rural and remote areas of Australia are needing more support for their mental health and at a younger age. The drought, bushfires and COVID-19 have combined to dramatical increase the demand for psychology services in the bush, including for young children.

Recent figures from Royal Far West, where we support developmentally vulnerable children from rural areas, show the volume of psychological therapy delivered by telehealth is now six times what is 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.

Our 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 16.5% able to access these services locally.

Kids from the bush have a double whammy: local psychology services often have wait lists and are a long way away from where they live. Early intervention is the key, as first symptoms of emotional and behavioural disturbance typically develop up to four years before serious mental health problems become apparent in children. Research shows that early intervention can really make the difference between kids flying and failing in early school years – and this often sets the trajectory for further down the track.

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.

We also know that children with problem behaviours such as aggression do less well at school, both in learning and in their relationships with their teachers and the other kids. But there are psychological treatments that work well for such children and their families, especially if we intervene early. Preschools, GPs and practice nurses are 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.                                                                                                      

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.

Need to talk to someone? If you need immediate assistance, call Lifeline on 13 11 14. For further information about depression, contact beyondblue on 1300 22 4636 or talk to your GP, local health professional or someone you trust.

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