All of these thoughts, kept within

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For the most part, we are a lucky bunch here in Australia. Childhood is a time enjoyed, however sometimes things aren’t quite as they should be. Sometimes there is something underlying and unexplainable. We take great care of a child’s physical health but in the same way as adults, their mental health can deteriorate without detection. Emerging Minds Australia leads is the National Workforce Centre for Child Mental Health (NWCCMH) which is delivered in partnership with the Australian Institute of Family Studies, the Australian National University, the Parenting Research Centre and the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners. They are here to educate and assist professionals and organisations who work with children so that we can better understand the invisible fold of mental health that lies beyond our view. We spoke to Senior Child Mental Health Workforce Consultant Courtney Schuurman and asked her what kind of things contribute to poor mental health in children and why.   


After a decade of experience in the field of infant well-being, Courtney Shuurman believes that early intervention is the best intervention. This seems simple but the mental health of young children is very complex, and can often be misplaced. Courtney explains that they might be perceived as being naughty or bad, yet this is their way of managing their internal world.

“They may be trying to manage emotional pain, be attempting to make friends or fit in, or be struggling in the school environment. And this behaviour could be due to emotional vulnerabilities, intense worries or anxieties. So, we ask not to label a child but be curious about what may be happening for them.”

Emerging Minds have begun the conversation about mental health associated with young children, and although this is a difficult discussion to have, it is one that must be had, as Courtney explains:

“Children’s mental health and wellbeing cannot be separated from the broader context of their lives. Infants and children, more than any other age group, are shaped and influenced by a range of social and environmental factors.”

Courtney said that those basic factors such as the social determinants of health – education, social inclusion, housing, economic and environmental factors – all impact on families and children.

“By considering all these factors, plus development such as language, cognition, coping skills and emotional regulation, you can see a broader picture of what is happening in the child’s life and be able to consider what is happening for the child.”

For a long time, mental health has been a taboo topic for all ages, and many people deem it to be something that can be handled, often by oneself. Courtney said that people can be surprised to hear the term “mental health” used in relation to infants and children. The complexity of this topic makes it a hard thing to process.

“Mental health is something that everyone has, and it exists on a continuum ranging from good mental health to times when a person is feeling less well, to a variety of diagnosed mental health conditions. In some contexts, the term “social and emotional wellbeing” is also used to refer to child mental health,” said Courtney. 

Courtney is eager to say that most infants and children experience good mental health most of the time especially if they are living in a context that is responsive to their needs and stimulating to their development.

“To an extent appropriate to their developmental stage, they can cope effectively with the challenges of life, express and regulate emotions, form close and secure relationships, and explore their environment. They still feel sad, worried, frustrated, and angry at times, but with support from adults, children can learn to express and manage these emotions in healthy ways that do not impact on their ability to cope with day-to-day life.”

“At the other end of the spectrum, however, some infants and children experience more frequent or intense difficulties with their emotions, thoughts, behaviours, learning, and relationships. If a caregiver is unable to provide support to the child by providing the good quality caregiving or is dealing with their issues, additional support is required.”

Try as we might to shield our young from any discomfort or concern, this is not always possible. Emerging Minds are here to help identify, access and support children at risk of mental health difficulties.

“Infants and children develop so fast, and we need to ensure that we are giving infants the best start in life, as this will support them for the rest of their lives.”

Some statistics:

Over 13% of 4-11 year olds in Australia experienced a diagnosable mental health condition in the past 12 months1.

25% of children exposed to family violence.

23% of children- parent or caregiver experiences mental illness

13% of children live in a household with at least one parent binge drinking

30% of 7-18 year olds report lack of sleep, high levels of stress and depressive symptoms2.

The National Workforce Centre for Child Mental Health is funded by the Australian Government Department of Health under the National Support for Child and Youth Mental Health Program.

www.emergingminds.com.au

Article by Sinead Halliday