In 2021, the Australian Bureau of Statistics released its National Study of Mental Health and Wellbeing. It found that 13.9% of young people aged 4 to 17 had experienced a mental disorder in the 12 months leading up to the survey. That’s 1 in 7 or 560,000 young people!

There is no doubt that Australia has a mental health crisis relating to young people. Unfortunately this problem is compounded by several factors:

  • The indicators or causes of these problems are not being identified early enough to enable intervention and referral to services that could improve their outcomes.
  • Young people and their families aren’t actively accessing mental health services. In the survey, only 25% of young people with a mental health disorder had accessed professional services in the six months before the survey.

So there is a great need for early intervention and getting young people the care they need before intensive treatment is required – the ‘responsive stage’. The health system is already overburdened with these cases.

A key to resolving both these issues is to involve schools in the solution. A range of recent studies have shown that schools and preschools can play a life-changing role in early intervention, especially for children aged 4 to 11.

Studies around schools and early intervention

The second Australian Child and Adolescent Survey of Mental Health and Wellbeing showed that schools are critical for supporting young people with emotional and behavioural problems because this is where symptoms are first identified. In 40% of cases, school staff members were the ones who suggested that a student needed help with emotional or behavioural problems.

In their review of mental health promotion in Australian schools, Slee et al argued that schools are ideal for implementing early intervention measures because programs can be delivered to every student in the school. This enables as many young people as possible to benefit and learn more about mental health.

In their UK report on why schools should offer mental health intervention, Dr Aleisha Clarke and Miriam Sorgenfrei outlined three clear reasons:

  1. Schools are in a unique position to reach all children. No matter the personal or family situation, a school can reach every student, including those with less supportive home environments or families that are under stress.
  2. School-based interventions work. Interventions have been shown to increase resilience and self-esteem, reduce anxiety and depression, and prevent violent and aggressive behaviour. They can also improve academic achievement. The benefits go beyond individual students – interventions can also improve the learning environment and the wellbeing of educators.
  3. School-based interventions can remove some common barriers. As some children and families cannot, or are reluctant to, access mental health support, practitioners can engage these children at school in a safe, familiar setting.

In other words, schools are in a position to help resolve the factors compounding Australia’s youth mental health crisis – lack of access to services and the need for early intervention.

Supporting schools to provide early intervention

Now that we understand the importance of schools in early intervention, we need to give them the support and resources to assist young people effectively and safely.

In 2021, Australia’s National Mental Health Commission launched the world’s first National Children’s Mental Health and Wellbeing Strategy (NCMHWS) for children aged 0 to 12. This strategy aims to improve mental health outcomes for children, and support their families and communities.

The strategy outlines four focus areas that together create an effective system of care for children: family and community, service system, education settings, and evidence and evaluation.

The education settings focus area should be of great interest to early childhood and primary educators. This section examines how we can better set up school and early learning environments to support children’s mental health.

Strategy objectives include:

  • wellbeing culture – to be promoted in every school through dedicated wellbeing staff, and resources and support
  •  dedicated wellbeing staff – to plan and coordinate wellbeing activities, and build and maintain relationships with local service providers to promote collaborative care
  •  wellbeing programs – to be included in early childhood curriculums, and offered through after-school and school holiday activities.
  • wellbeing plan – to be implemented in every early childhood learning service and school.

The strategy also aims to give educators the training and resources they need to support child mental health and wellbeing, including:

  • guidance in talking to parents and carers about mental health
  • clear guidelines and processes on what to do when a child is struggling
  • additional learning on mental health, including paid time for participation
  • access to support for their own health and wellbeing
  • outreach procedures to respond to student disengagement, using trauma-informed approaches.

You can stay up to date with the government’s progress towards the NCMHWS at www.mentalhealthcommission.gov.au.

Having Kinnections in your toolbox

Currently 50% of all adult mental health issues emerge before the age of 14. However, unfortunately, our mental health system is focused on treating people once their mental health becomes poor.
The NCMHWS starts with the premise that children should get help when the first signs appear. This could prevent them ever becoming unwell and give them tools to cope if they do.

Schools and preschools need as many resources as possible to do this. Our Kinnections platform will be a vital tool in every school’s toolbox, enabling a whole-school approach to student mental health and wellbeing, and giving educators a simple system for identifying and responding to students’ mental health needs.

Book a 30-minute meeting with us to find out more about using Kinnections in your school

Book a 30-minutes meeting with us

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