Vulnerable children from disadvantaged backgrounds are increasingly arriving at hospital for mental health issues including anxiety, eating disorders and self-harm, a researcher says.
Community concern over the impact of COVID lockdowns in Victoria and NSW on child mental health has increased in recent weeks, as some kids struggle without the structure of school.
Recent data reveals a surge in calls to Kids Helpline and there has been a rise in children being hospitalised due to mental illness.
Royal Children’s Hospital Melbourne paediatrician Harriet Hiscock has noticed an increase.
“What I have seen in my clinical practice, and along with my colleagues, is an increase in loneliness, a general ‘nothing left in the tank’ type of thing,” she told AAP.
A leading researcher at the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute, Prof Hiscock recently completed a study into children presenting with mental health problems at Victorian hospital emergency departments.
“We’ve shown that mental health presentations to the emergency departments were already increasing for some conditions prior to COVID,” she said.
“But then with COVID, if we look at the data from last year, some things leapt up more than we expected based on trends – the things that increased were eating disorders, self-harm and anxiety.”
Children from low-income or disadvantaged backgrounds were prominent among the increased cases.
“For almost all conditions they’re more likely to be from lower-socio-economic areas presenting for mental health reasons,” she said.
“We have a huge lack of support and resources for those kids and those parents.”
Families from disadvantaged backgrounds often use GPs and community health centres to seek support for their children.
However, Prof Hiscock said community health centres are underfunded for this sort of work.
“They might get more funding for adults with drug and alcohol problems and things like that, but for children it’s grossly underfunded,” she said.
The professor pointed to the health system’s focus on how many patients can be seen in an hour, rather than outcomes for those seeking help.
Federal deputy chief medical officer Ruth Vine, who is overseeing the mental health impacts of the pandemic, recognises the need for change.
“We’ve seen, not just in Victoria, but in other jurisdictions, a recognition that there does need to be more investment in children’s mental health,” she told AAP.
“I agree that more needs to be done, but you have to develop a workforce for this and the infrastructure and the processes.”
Australia has been short of psychiatrists for many years, but increased demand during the pandemic has revealed how dire the workforce shortages are.
Dr Hiscock ran a pilot program earlier in 2021 to help GPs, paediatricians and mental health clinicians identify and manage kids’ mental health presentations.
“It has worked so well, I think a sort of model to be rolled out across the state would be wonderful, because whilst there will be training and we’ll get more workforce, it’s going to take three to six years,” she said.
Dr Vine said she is exploring “what sort of training is ready to go” and is keen encourage the existing workforce to build up their skills.
“We need to think – what can we do to support the current workforce, because we’re seeing this increase in young people’s presentations now.”
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Kids Helpline 1800 55 1800 (for people aged 5 to 25)
Australian Associated Press