As Australia unveils the “world’s first” child mental health strategy and state governments spend hundreds of millions on young people’s wellbeing, researchers want a national measure to determine success.
The new National Child Mental Health and Wellbeing Strategy highlighted that only half of all children with mental illness in the past 12 months had accessed services yet an estimated 50% of adult mental illness began before 14 years of age.
The National Mental Health Commission created the strategy in consultation with the sector to provide a framework to support the mental health of children under 12 and their families.
Initiatives include increasing parent and carer mental health literacy, trialling new service delivery models, amending Medicare items and equipping educators to support children’s mental health.
The strategy also emphasises evidence and evaluation should be central to service delivery. The Centre for Social Impact’s director Paul Flatau told The Mandarin this measurement of outcomes would be key.
“Nationally, we don’t sufficiently measure mental health outcomes at a population level for different age groups,” the University of Western Australia professor says.
“If you look at health more generally, outside the mental health area, of course we have incredible measurement. There is a disparity.”
The strategy calls for inter-departmental committees to resolve barriers to data sharing across education, justice and community health. It also asks for evaluation to be part of service and program delivery from the beginning.
But Flatau also said building frameworks to measure the success of mental health outcomes could take time.
The National Mental Health and Suicide Prevention Plan has made a $2.3 billion commitment to mental health, while Victoria is investing $842 million in mental health for young people and NSW’s spending on young people reaches into the hundreds of millions.
“It will take time for the outcomes of this program to be felt,” Flatau added. “But at the same time, we need to develop the measurement systems that allow us to do an analysis of whether we are effective or not and there needs to be a spend in that area.”
The Centre for Social Impact released a report last month highlighting that more money was going towards high-cost acute and crisis care than preventive and early intervention to support young people.
The pandemic caused Victoria this month to bring forward plans by a year to place mental health practitioners in high schools, and Flatau praised the rollout of mental health workers in WA schools, too.
“Traditionally private schools did have a strong focus and it was not always that strong in the public school system,” he said. “Schools play a huge role for the kids that are either connected or disconnected.”
The centre’s research among many others shows the nation faces a “very significant” challenge in addressing mental health, Flatau says, but strategy now needs to be followed to deliver services as funding rises.
He said peer support for young people, services collaborating with other services, and empowerment of young people should remain key planks to services offering support.
“It’s not just the spend you are putting in and the structure of mental health programs but the way you deliver the programs — that is equally important,” Flatau said.
“We still have to provide the care in the right kind of way.”