In recent weeks, to surprisingly little fanfare, the Morrison Federal Government has announced a new Children’s Mental Health Strategy. Announced by Health Minister, Greg Hunt, at the National Press Club, the strategy is aimed squarely at building resilience in childhood to prevent mental illness for all Australians.
Minister Hunt has been explicit: Primary School-aged children will be the target of this strategy. Its focus is a systematic approach to identifying and treating depression, anxiety, and eating disorders in children. While little has been written or said about the strategy, this initiative must be applauded loud and long. We know that approximately 1 in 7 children experience mental health issues. This number is rising.
It is increasingly obvious that anxiety has become the common cold of mental health disorders, with children as young as four routinely diagnosed with some form of anxiety, and the numbers of children taking medication for mental health issues (such as depression, ADHD, and anxiety) continuing to rise. Half of all mental health conditions in adulthood emerge by the time a child is 14.
Supporting children by supporting their parents
We also know that effective programs for supporting parents have positive impact. We can reduce depression by over 20% by providing the right support as prevention. Government intervention that includes preventive screening to identify mental health issues early is vital. But what may be even more helpful is Government education and incentives aimed at supporting families as they seek to raise their children resilient.
For example: Paid parental leave during the vulnerable transition to parenthood and its attendant risks of post-natal depression (for both mums and dads) would support families and provide a powerful support structure to assist families at the arrival of a new child. Economic pressures force parents to make decisions that are rarely in the best interests of either the child or parents as they rush back to work to meet financial obligations.
Supporting children by reducing pressure
The Federal Government could also encourage states to make changes to early childhood and early school years curricula to encourage more play and reduce (or eliminate) formal testing of children up until at least Grade 4. The Western Australian State School Teacher’s Union is actively campaigning for more physical activity and play-based learning in the early years because we know this approach encourages better mental health and improved academic outcomes in children. Shifting away from homework in the early years would also be helpful in reducing stress and anxiety, and encouraging wellbeing.
Building and protecting the family
The Federal Government’s Raising Children Network offers useful resources for parents. But the most useful focus for the Government would be to focus on initiatives and strategies that build and protect the family. This is because Government initiatives can support, but never replace, the protective factors for wellbeing necessary to raise children resilient. Creating a healthy parenting environment is a significant protective factor.
Parents who experience mental illness are at greater risk of developing disruptive attachment patterns with their children which can negatively impact on that child’s mental health. Moreover, research indicates that there is often an intergenerational transmission of mental illness. By providing skills and resources to assist parents to manage their mental health more effectively, children will be more likely to be born into families that can flourish.
Supporting the most vulnerable
Cost of mental health support is also a factor, and those most vulnerable to mental illness often have the least financial resources. While many struggling families receive in-person support from qualified case-work personnel with government assistance, such help is sometimes unreliable due to stretched and stressed workers carrying loads far too large for any one person.
What can WE do?
Beyond government intervention, we can also work responsibly ourselves to support our children’s wellbeing. Research is abundantly clear to a child LOVE is spelled T-I-M-E. Children flourish when parents are available to enjoy quality time together. Even better if that is time spent outside. Nature is fuel for the soul – ours and our children’s.
Finally, reducing pressure on our kids is vital. The trend towards hiring tutors for pre-school-aged children and the push-down of pressure for academic success at younger ages is not in our children’s best interests. When our ladder of success is focused on economics and academics, we become unbalanced. It profits our children nothing to be rich and well-educated, yet miserable and anxious.
Connections with parents and peers, developmentally appropriate skill acquisition through play, physical activity outside (daily), time to be still (without screens), and the opportunity to give to something larger than the self are scientifically shown to bolster mental health and sustain resilience through life’s challenges. It takes a village, sure. But the village needs to slow down and concentrate on what matters most.