The past couple of years have been particularly stressful for many rural and remote families. The compounding impact of drought, bushfires, floods and the COVID-19 pandemic has seen an increase in families seeking child mental health support.
These challenges have also been reflected within the workforce, with reduced staffing levels and an increased workload leading to higher rates of stress and burnout among health professionals.
In times like these it can be easy to forget that simple interventions, delivered early in the course of a difficulty, can make a powerful difference to a child’s mental health outcomes. And, if provided early, help to build resilience can be as simple as getting families back to basics – for example, encouraging positive routines including sleep hygiene and family time, creating social connections, or helping children to make meaning of the events around them.
As general practices are often the first point of call for parents, general practitioners (GPs) and practice nurses are well positioned to support children experiencing the first signs of mental health difficulties.
Both practice nurses and GPs work closely with families throughout the life of a child, from initial antenatal care through to neonatal checks, routine immunisations, developmental assessments and health checks. They are at the forefront of child health and wellbeing, and can engage families to promote positive mental health and facilitate early intervention to prevent difficulties from escalating. Every routine child health appointment is an opportunity to build rapport and systematically gather information on the mental health and wellbeing of the child and family.
Supporting children who are at risk of or experiencing social or emotional challenges does not need to be complex or time consuming. Broadly, all staff working in general practice (clinical and non-clinical) have engagement skills that can help validate family challenges, acknowledge the stress of transitions (such as from childcare to primary school) and encourage mental health discussions with a nurse or GP. More specifically, assessment and engagement skills readily utilised by GPs and nurses in everyday practice can be translated to support children’s wellbeing through identification, prevention and early intervention strategies. This is of particular importance in rural and remote areas due to additional barriers in accessing support services.
To help practitioners have preventive, strengths-based conversations with families, Emerging Minds, funded by the Australian Government Department of Health and Aged Care, has put together resources to support practitioners in this work. These include the PERCS Conversation Guide, infant and child mental health assessment courses and a parent–child play conversation guide. Emerging Minds Families also has a number of resources that practitioners can share with families to help support infants’ and children’s mental health.
Australian College of Rural and Remote Medicine and Emerging Minds partnership
One of Emerging Minds’ goals is to increase the confidence of rural and remote professionals to identify and support children and families at risk or showing signs of mental health difficulties. To achieve this, we have partnered with the Australian College of Rural and Remote Medicine (ACRRM) to provide child mental health content via the ACRRM Online Learning platform – free to access for all members. If you are a GP, keep an eye out for this exciting launch and, in the meantime, please explore the range of resources available through the Emerging Minds website.