Mental health hits vulnerable children
Vulnerable children from disadvantaged backgrounds are increasingly coming to hospitals with mental health issues, including anxiety, eating disorders and self-harm, according to a researcher.
Community concern over the impact of the COVID closures in Victoria and New South Wales on children’s mental health has increased in recent weeks as some children struggle without the structure of the school.
Recent data shows an increase in calls to Kids Helpline and an increase in the number of children hospitalized with mental illness.
Harriet Hiscock, a pediatrician at the Royal Children’s Hospital in Melbourne, has noticed an increase.
“What I have seen in my clinical practice, and with my colleagues, is an increase in loneliness, a general type of ‘there is nothing left in the reservoir’,” she told AAP. .
A leading researcher at the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute, Professor Hiscock recently completed a study of children with mental health problems in emergency departments in Victorian hospitals.
“We have shown that mental health presentations to emergency departments are already increasing for certain conditions before COVID,” she said.
“But then with COVID, if we look at the data from last year, some things increased more than expected based on trends – the things that increased were eating disorders, self-harm, and anxiety. “
Children from disadvantaged or low-income backgrounds predominated among the increased cases.
“For almost all conditions, they are more likely to come from lower socio-economic areas presenting for mental health reasons,” she said.
“We have a huge lack of support and resources for these children and parents.”
Families from disadvantaged backgrounds often turn to general practitioners and community health centers to seek help for their children.
However, Professor Hiscock said community health centers are underfunded for this type of work.
“They could get more funding for adults with drug and alcohol problems and things like that, but for kids it’s grossly underfunded,” she said.
The professor underscored the healthcare 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 oversees the impacts of the pandemic on mental health, recognizes the need for change.
“We have seen, not only in Victoria, but in other jurisdictions, a recognition that more investment is needed in children’s mental health,” she told AAP.
“I agree that more needs to be done, but you need to develop a workforce for it, as well as the infrastructure and the processes.”
Australia has had a shortage of psychiatrists for many years, but increased demand during the pandemic has revealed just how severe the labor shortages are.
Dr Hiscock led a pilot program earlier in 2021 to help general practitioners, pediatricians and mental health clinicians identify and manage pediatric mental health presentations.
“It has worked so well, I think some sort of model to roll out statewide would be wonderful, because even though there will be training and we will have more manpower, it will take three at six, ”she said. .
Dr Vine said she is exploring “what kind of training is ready to go” and is strongly encouraging the existing workforce to develop their skills.
“We need to think – what can we do to support the current workforce as we are now seeing this increase in referrals from young people.”
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Kids Helpline 1800 55 1800 (for ages 5 to 25)