ANXIETY: The effects of drought, bushfires and a pandemic is impacting children in the bush where services are limited.

ANXIETY: The effects of drought, bushfires and a pandemic is impacting children in the bush where services are limited.

Early intervention key in kids' mental health

OPINION | Early intervention key in kids' mental health

Community
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Early intervention can address many childhood mental health issues.

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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 in 2020 to dramatically increase the demand for psychology services in the bush, including for younger children.

Royal Far West, a charity which supports developmentally vulnerable children from rural areas, reports 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.

The long-term effects of the drought continue to play out in many rural households, with families reporting ongoing financial hardship.

Drought has a cumulative negative effect on rural families - the longer the drought, the worse the health of parents in rural families becomes, which has a direct impact on children's physical and mental wellbeing in these households.

Added to this, children and their families who live remotely are more likely than the general Australian population to be affected by many of the factors which negatively influence child mental health and resilience.

Royal Far West psychologists working on the ground this year have reported a general increase in severity of clients' emotional difficulties.

Kids are talking more about anxiety in regard to the environment and are aware of other external stressors impacting their parents - including work and economic stress, the lack of ability to plan or take holidays, and less time and capacity for self-care activities.

That is why it is crucial for preschools, GPs and practice nurses 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.

Royal Far West's specialist residential program, 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 its clients shows that psychology is now the highest needed support service with nearly half referred to a psychology service, but with only around one in five able to access these services locally.

So, kids from the bush are facing a double whammy - local psychology services often have wait lists and are a long way from where they live.

The key to alleviating this growing problem is early intervention.

Getting in early with anxious children and their families can make a big difference to how well these kids do at school - socially, behaviourally and academically - and then in later life.

Children with problem behaviours such as aggression, do less well at school, both in learning and in their relationships with their teachers and other kids.

But these kids can be greatly helped with psychological treatments, especially if issues are treated early enough.

First symptoms of emotional and behavioural disturbance typically develop up to four years before serious mental health problems become apparent in children.

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.

That is why it is crucial for preschools, GPs and practice nurses 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 the area of emotional health and wellbeing, and do it early.

This should be the first, but significant step, towards a mentally healthier population across their lifetime.

A failure to address child mental ill-health and its underlying causes in the bush, will prove extremely costly to our society, and, most significantly, to our future.

Dr Josephine Anderson is a Paediatric Mental Health Specialist, Consultant Child and Adolescent Psychiatrist and is Clinical Director at Royal Far West.

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