National Mental Health Reform 2011-12

Early intervention and prevention, and mental health services for children and young people

Page last updated: 06 June 2011

Around 15.4 per cent of all children and adolescents (those aged up to seventeen years) have a mental disorder.

The best chance of preventing mental disorders or providing early intervention to minimise the impact of mental illness across the lifetime is during childhood. Untreated conduct disorders in childhood significantly increase the social and economic costs to the individual and the community later in life, including through the criminal justice system.

The effectiveness of early intervention is poorly recognised in the current system and schools and early childhood services are generally ill-equipped to identify problems early and intervene effectively. Additionally, the child mental health services in Australia that do exist can struggle to bridge the gaps between health and the settings where children spend much of their time – education or child care.

For adolescents, mental illness is a significant risk factor for not completing secondary school and subsequent study or employment. It is also a risk factor for longer term mental and physical health outcomes, as well as impacting on their families, friends and others around them.

However, only twenty-five per cent of young people with mental illness access services, and for most there is a long delay between the start of symptoms and when they receive help. Young people are hard to reach, as they don’t necessarily make regular visits to traditional medical or community health services. Furthermore, young people are not always comfortable with the available models and types of care provision. That’s why the Government has been focusing on services such as headspace, EPPIC and KidsMatter that are designed to reach out to children and young people.

Untreated mental illness contributes to a significant and tragic burden of suicide for young Australians, particularly young men. Mental illness remains the biggest risk factor for suicide. In 2009, over three-quarters (76.6 per cent) of suicides were males, making suicide the 10th leading cause of death for males and the 14th leading cause of death overall. Although death by suicide accounts for a relatively small proportion (2 per cent) of deaths overall, in 2009 suicide accounted for 22 per cent of deaths for males aged 15-24 years.

Government funding for initiatives such as Better Access, headspace and suicide prevention has had some success, but young Australians still need better access to more services to minimise the toll of mental illness on their lives and their families.