When the conversation turns to the mental health of Australians, it’s invariably adults that are put under the spotlight. In fact, children are also living with conditions like anxiety and depression.
According to recent government data, almost 14 per cent of Australian children (between the ages of 4 and 11) have experienced mental illness.
Kids are exposed to a range of issues that could lead to trauma and ongoing mental illness, including family dynamics, lifestyle changes and social and learning issues at school. Some of the knock-on effects include anxiety, depression, misconduct and inability to focus on activities or keep friends.
The good news is, there’s a lot of work being done to diagnose, identify and treat mental illness in children, which means interventions can be made early.
The state of child mental health in Australia
A 2016 study by researchers at the University of South Australia estimated that eight per cent of infants in Australia have five or more risk factors for developing a mental illness. That figure jumps to 20 per cent when considering 10-11 year old children.
While it’s true that the discussion and recognition of mental illness is increasing in Australia, there’s still a low uptake in parents accessing support services for children struggling with mental illness.
Australian government research found that half of Australian children with mental health issues are not getting timely, professional help. The study found that two out of three parents were not accessing appropriate support for their children because of a range of factors including prohibitive price and lack of access to information and services.
The pandemic didn’t help, either, with its lockdowns and disruptions to normal life. Research from Australia’s Murdoch Children’s Research Institute found that factors like home-schooling, reduced income for parents and reduced access to healthcare had a negative impact on the mental health of kids.
However, Australia now has a National Children’s Mental Health and Wellbeing Strategy which aims to improve such outcomes.
And part of any improvement is the development of a talented, educated and professional mental health workforce.
In addition, there are a number of helplines which act as a first port of call when looking for assistance for child mental illness. These include services like Kids Helpline, Lifeline, SANE Australia and Beyond Blue.
Online services are continuing to develop, too. ReachOut.com has an online forum for parental discussion, and there are informative apps available like Raising Healthy Minds, MoodTools and Chill Panda.
There is also an increasing awareness of the need for mental health capabilities in childcare.
Beyond Blue manages its ‘Be You’ initiative, aimed at equipping childhood educator workers with guidelines to help better prevent and manage mental illness in childcare and early learning.
In primary schools, states like Victoria are investing in a variety of mental health resources for students, and roles that service these frameworks include welfare officers, student support services and school nurses.
Specialising in child mental health
In more good news for kids living with mental illness, there are several professions stepping up to help. That means more specific help for children, and, for those looking to work in the field, increased job opportunities.
Often, mental health professionals have degrees in social work, psychiatry, counselling, occupational therapy or psychology, which alone tells you the breadth of roles available. Identifying the root cause of mental health issues in kids requires precision treatment rather than a catch-all effect, and there are several specialisations.
The options are wide and varied. You could train to be a child psychologist, a social worker who helps children in outpatient or inpatient programs, a child counsellor at an education provider or even a family therapist.
Some mental health professionals working with children do so on a short-term basis, others over a longer term.
Occupational therapists treat children by helping them to negotiate daily tasks. They do this by working on areas such as prioritising self-care and developing social skills.
Counsellors, meanwhile, coach kids to think beyond the problems of the present by placing troubling issues into context. This might involve the development of problem-solving skills and effective ways to manage emotions so that immediate feelings don’t negatively impact upon the child’s potential.
For more severe cases, including ADHD, severe mood swings, long-standing depression and debilitating anxiety, psychiatrists can be employed. They might use family therapy, including the counselling of parents, to treat the issue, as well as prescribing medication in particularly severe cases.
Developing the skills you need
Working in childhood mental health can be a demanding role, however, it is ultimately rewarding. By early intervention that helps improve our children’s futures, we’re improving the future state of our community.
Naturally, working in this field requires an affection for children, but it also requires, resilience, patience and empathy, considering that you may be exposed to kids who have experienced abuse or who have severe illnesses.
Childhood mental health professionals often work with other family members as well as the child seeking treatment. They might also work with the child’s teacher or family GP, so an ability to forge and maintain connections is essential.
Excellent communications skills are also a must. Some kids might be non-verbal in nature, due to trauma, or from countries where your language is not widely spoken. Others may be too anxious to open up, so you’ll need to not only adapt to their ways of communicating but also adapt your approach to treatment as well. Often, this can be achieved through an innate sense of playfulness, regulating your professional outlook to speak the true language of the child.
You may already have developed similar skills in your current job, which means you’d be well placed to move into the field. Social workers, paediatric nurses, childcare professionals and others may find that childhood mental health can provide a new and stimulating fork in their future career path.
Choosing a specialty in child mental health
The choice to study a postgraduate degree is a personal one, but hopefully we’ve given you enough information to make the right choice.
Keep in mind, too, that our partner university courses employ a co-design approach which brings together clinical, academic and learning design experts to create highly engaging and high-quality learning experiences. The accelerated online mode is designed to help you juggle competing demands of work or family commitments.
Want to know more? Explore mental health, psychology and counselling courses, and get in touch today to match the right degree with the career you want.