Improving children’s mental health and wellbeing

A new Childhood Mental Health Research Plan will shape $50 million in funding from the Medical Research Future Fund. An independent Expert Advisory Panel formed the plan. Members tell us how it will help improve children’s mental health and wellbeing.

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Children are struggling more with their mental health 

‘Children experienced increased mental health symptoms before COVID-19, but then COVID-19 made that grow exponentially,’ says Professor Jennie Hudson from the Black Dog Institute. Jennie is Chair of the Childhood Mental Health Research Plan Expert Advisory Panel. 

‘More than half of mental health problems emerge before puberty. One focus of the Childhood Mental Health Research Plan is to understand why.’

Changes in society play a role 

‘During COVID-19 we witnessed rapid change,’ Jennie notes. ‘The virus created a new threat to our health. There was more isolation and financial stress on families. Post COVID-19 many children are finding it difficult to attend school consistently.

‘There has also been a shift in children’s activity. They have more screen time, get less sleep and are less active than they used to be. We want to understand more about how these things affect young people's mental health.’

Increasing children’s access to treatments

The research plan focuses on implementing preventions and treatments that we know work for most young people. But they are not being delivered equally to all children.

To improve this, the plan will support researchers living in rural areas and First Nations researchers. It also addresses research gaps, including:

  • 0–5-year-old kids
  • anxiety, depression, self-harm and suicide
  • eating disorders
  • trauma
  • disability
  • disruptive disorders

Co-designing research with families, carers and children 

Families, carers and children where appropriate will be co-designers of research funded under the plan. 

‘Co-design allows you to understand children’s language and perspectives such as their beliefs, what’s cool and what is of interest to them,’ says panel member Professor Maree Teesson. 

Co-designed research is also more fit for use by systems that support children. ‘You can't work with children without working with systems that support them,’ explains panel member Associate Professor Beth Kotze. ‘That could be families or carers, schools or other agencies, or support networks within the community.’

Incubator grants to try out a new idea 

The research plan calls for smaller scale incubator grants to try out new ideas. ‘These are for projects that can answer a question quickly or provide proof of concept for something bigger,’ Maree explains. 

‘We are hoping the small incubator grants will lead to innovations,’ Jennie adds.

Collaborations to respond to complex problems 

The panel also recommends larger grants to allow teams of scientists to respond to complex problems. ‘These are for “moonshot” ideas that go to scale,’ Maree says. 

This could be a national collaboration or involve broader mental health services. 

Early to mid-career research leaders and peer researchers 

At least half of the incubator grants will be led by early to mid-career researchers. ‘The greatest ideas in science and research often come from people who have just finished their degrees,’ Maree explains. 

‘They're starting out and they've got a burning idea but it is really hard to get funding without a track record. We decided to invest in those ideas of the future. I'm so proud of that.’ 

‘We are also encouraging teams to include peer researchers such as people with lived experience or community members like teachers and clinicians,’ Jennie adds. ‘This helps to reduce the gap between science and practice.’

Half of the research team for the larger grants will be early to mid-career researchers and peer researchers.

Benefits of strategic planning 

‘This research plan is tremendously exciting,’ Beth says. ‘We are aiming to achieve coherence and equity across the mental health service sector. That's what strategic planning can do.’

A healthier future for young Australians

‘As a result of this research we'll have a better understanding of child mental health and its causes,’ Maree says. ‘We'll have new work on preventing the problems before they even begin. We'll have treatments that change lives and create a healthier future for young Australians.’

Jennie concludes, ‘This research plan will shift the dial on childhood mental health.’

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