Upset problem child sitting on staircase
Upset problem child sitting on staircase

Mental health screening for toddlers

TODDLERS should be screened for mental illness before they start preschool to stop them sliding into anxiety and depression, a government agency has warned.

And taxpayers should spend $975 million a year to hire a "wellbeing leader'' for every school, to spot students with mental health problems and send them to psychologists, the Productivity Commission says in an alarming new report.

One in seven Australian children has a mental illness, which can range from anxiety and depression to attention deficit hyperactivity and conduct disorders, it says.

At school, one in 20 kids needs extra help in class due to "social and emotional disability''.

The commission says young children should be screened for "social and emotional wellbeing'' before they start school, on top of existing physical health checks by GPs.

Childcare workers should be trained to detect signs of mental illness in toddlers and alert parents, it says.

"Early childhood teachers should be taught to identify behaviours that may be of concern and work with parents to access support for the child and their family,'' the 1257-page draft report says.

"For many children and young people, mental illness first emerges during their school years, but their symptoms can go untreated for long periods of time.

"Parents … are often poorly informed about mental health, and this can contribute to delays in seeking help for their children and family.''

The commission wants every school to hire a senior teacher as a "wellbeing leader'', to co-ordinate school counsellors, social workers, nurses and psychologists, at a cost of up to $975 million a year.


The report paints an alarming picture of child mental health in Australia.
The report paints an alarming picture of child mental health in Australia.


"Governments should work towards ensuring that every school has a designated wellbeing leader, who will co-ordinate whole-of-school and individual programs to support students at risk of mental ill-health,'' it says.

"A school wellbeing leader should be part of the leadership team of a school, and should have minimal (if any) classroom duties.

"They should not be required to hold psychology qualifications, as their role would not involve counselling individual students.''

The commission says half of all Australians will suffer a mental illness at some time in their life - costing the nation $500 million a day in treatment and lost productivity.

The presiding commissioner of the inquiry, Professor Stephen King, said too many Australians with mental illness "avoid treatment because of stigma''.

"Too many people fall through the gaps in the system because the services they need are not available or suitable,'' he said.

Despite $18 billion a year spent on mental health, the commission found that a million Australians are failing to get treatment for illnesses including anxiety and depression.

A quarter of 16 to 24-year-olds have an anxiety, mood or substance use disorder, the report says, and three-quarters of Australians with a mental illness will first experience symptoms before they turn 25.