Most children with mental health issues not accessing care

Morgan Liotta

12/06/2019 2:56:39 PM

While one-third of children who access care see a GP, the majority who experience issues do not receive any treatment, according to a new study.

The study aims to gain an insight into care accessed for children’s mental health, to help better target interventions and improve service use.

The study, led by the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute with researchers collaborating from the Universities of Melbourne, Adelaide and Deakin and published in the Australian Journal of Psychology, aimed to gain further understanding of how many and which groups of children are missing out on care for mental health issues.
Aiming to ‘help better target child mental health interventions and improve service use’, the study found that the vast majority of Australian children – defined as those aged 8–13 years – were not getting professional help.
A total of 4983 children from the ongoing Longitudinal Study of Australian Children were selected for parents to fill out questionnaires when their child was aged 8–9, 10–11 and 12–13 years.
Some of the findings include:

  • girls were less likely to receive care than boys – 30% of children who received support for emotional issues at ages 8–9 and 10–11 were girls, despite 50% of those needing help being girls
  • families from non-English speaking backgrounds were less likely to receive help – 14% of children with emotional issues came from a non-English speaking background, but only 2% received help
  • younger children (aged 8–9 years) were less likely to access services than older children
  • fewer than one in four children with mental health issues saw a health professional in the 18 months after they were identified as having an issue.
Professor Harriet Hiscock, lead researcher and author of the study, noted a number of reasons people may delay seeking help for children.
‘[The families] hope that they will “grow out” of the mental disorder, but as the situation worsens they seek treatment,’ she said.
‘The gradual onset and increase in severity over time of many mental health problems means that children and their parents are more likely to seek services when the symptoms become severe or impact significantly on the child’s ability to function, typically as they grow older.
‘However, left untreated, problems can become more entrenched and in turn harder to treat.’
Professor Hiscock believes the fact girls are less likely to access support than boys – despite experiencing similar levels of mental health issues – may be because girls are more likely to have internal emotional issues, while boys tend to externalise.
Families from non-English speaking backgrounds may be reluctant to access mental health services for their children due to cultural differences or language barriers, according to the research.
‘Their quietness in the classroom may also be mistaken for a language issue rather than a mental health issue,’ Professor Hiscock said.
For those families who did access healthcare services for children experiencing mental health issues, the most common services were GPs (35%), followed by psychologists (24%), paediatricians (21%), and child psychiatrists (7%).
Between 12–17% of Australian children are estimated to be seeing a paediatrician for their mental health, the study also revealed.
The Murdoch Children’s Research Institute study linked with Medicare data to see which families had accessed mental health services. Data from 2016–17 shows that, out of any age group, children under the age of 15 had the lowest use (5%) of Medicare-rebated mental health services.
Australian Institute of Health and Welfare from 2018 figures show that one in seven (14%) young people aged 4–17 met the clinical criteria for one or more mental health disorder in the previous year, and 50% of all adult mental health disorders begin before the age of 14 years.
Professor Hiscock also highlighted the importance of acknowledging that many mental health disorders can begin in early childhood, not just adolescence.
‘Young children respond to and process emotional experiences and traumatic events in ways that are very different from adults and older children,’ she said.
‘Consequently, diagnosis in early childhood can be much more difficult than it is in adults.’

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