Tackling the youth mental health crisis starts with prevention – expert

Tackling the youth mental health crisis starts with prevention – expert

Mental health was a key focus of Tuesday night’s Federal Budget 2022, with the government announcing $9.7m for new measures to help teachers and school leaders better understand and respond to the mental health and wellbeing needs of students.

According to the World Health Organization, mental health disorders are one of the main causes of disability during adolescence. In Australia, almost a quarter of young people are psychologically stressed, yet many do not seek help.

Compounding this issue is the unfortunate reality that while there is strong demand among teachers for evidence-based programs to improve students’ mental health, what is available is often quite limited, and of unknown efficacy.

Mental health organisation Smiling Mind says it is imperative that children and families have access to tools that can support their mental health and build resilience.

Smiling Mind CEO, Dr Addie Wootten, says the mental health and wellbeing of Australian children and young people has been on a steady decline over the past decade, and the impact of Covid has exacerbated this.

“We know that one-in-seven primary school aged children are experiencing a mental illness and this rises to one-in-four by the time children reach the high school years, according to the National Child Mental Health Strategy,” Dr Wootten told The Educator.

“Suicide was already at a ten-year high prior to the pandemic and recent data from the Resolve Political Monitor indicates that one-in-four young people have thought about suicide in the past year.”

Dr Wootten said the social and emotional impact of the pandemic could have far-reaching impacts and there have already been reports of this broadly impacting learning outcomes with reports of students being at least 4-5 months behind due to school closures as well as significant social and emotional impacts.

A profound return on investment

To address, this Dr Wootten says there needs to be greater funding towards preventative mental health programs, which she says will both help those most in need and be to Australia’s long term economic benefit.

“According to the Productivity Commission inquiry into mental health, poor mental health costs the Australian economy more than $220B per year, yet investment remains problematically skewed towards crisis response,” Dr Wootten explained.

“Less than 1% of government funding towards mental health programs is invested into prevention strategies. In order to stem the growing need for acute services it is paramount that investment is made into prevention.”

According to Mental Health Australia and KPMG, Australia will save $90m in the short term if investment in prevention and early intervention was increased, while the National Mental Health Commission reported a return on investment of prevention-based initiatives ranging from 1-3.06, meaning that for every dollar invested there is a return on investment of $3.00.

“More broadly, we know that supporting children and young people to develop mental health skills and build resilience has significant flow on benefits for the rest of their life,” Dr Wootten said.

“About 25-50% of adult mental illness can be prevented during childhood and improving mental wellbeing reduces the risk of developing mental illness by a factor of eight.”

Dr Wootten says investment into prevention based approaches would not only reduce the burden of mental illness on individuals and the economy, but have a significant upside in terms of future engagement in study and work as well as reducing other significant social issues such as crime, domestic violence and unemployment.

So what programs are having an impact?

Pointing to a recent major paper published in the journal Nature, Dr Wootten says mindfulness-based and multi-component positive psychological interventions have demonstrated the greatest efficacy in both clinical and non-clinical populations in supporting positive mental health outcomes.

“The Smiling Mind Schools program takes a mindfulness-based approach to support social and emotional learning across the whole school,” she said.

“This evidence-based program is now embedded in more than 1,200 primary schools nationally, providing teacher training and professional learning opportunities as well as practical teaching and learning resources to use within the classroom.”

Dr Wootten said Smiling Mind’s Mindfulness Curriculum resources are developmentally staged and offer interactive digital learning resources for teacher led learning as well as self-paced learning for students within the Smiling Mind Hub.

“This program is proving to have significant impact with student outcomes including increased engagement with learning, reductions in disruptive behaviour and bullying, reductions in anxiety and improvements in emotional wellbeing,” she said.

“Taking a trauma-informed approach this program also offers practical tools and resources that can be used with a range of children.”

Why an evidence based SEL framework is crucial

Dr Wootten said preventative mental health methodology already aligns well with school-based initiatives and pedagogy, making it a practical option for schools.

“Supporting social and emotional learning of students is fundamental to this preventative approach,” she said.

“It is important to recognise that prevention initiatives take time, they are not one-off learning opportunities and must be reinforced by the whole school community.”

To see the benefits of this for students and educators in action, Dr Wootten says it is essential to embed an evidence-based social and emotional learning framework that can be implemented across the whole school and is sustainable over time.

“Supporting children to process trauma and equipping teachers with the skills and capabilities to support children who have experienced trauma is a major priority for many school leaders right now,” she said.

“It is important to recognise that there may be specific needs in response to community or world events [i.e. the impact of the pandemic or climate disasters] and responding to these events with a whole-of-school approach to mental health and wellbeing is recommended.”

Dr Wootten said The Smiling Mind Schools program is ultimately designed to support a whole-of-school approach.

“Taking evidence-based mindfulness and extending it with positive psychology and trauma informed approaches has resulted in significant positive outcomes for many schools we are working with.”