The Murdoch Children’s Research Institute in Melbourne found mental health presentations tripled for children aged between 10-14 and 15-19 between 2008 and 2015.
The study followed young people from birth to the age of 19, and is the first in Australia to examine trends in children’s health presentations to Victoria’s emergency departments.
Self-harm, drug and alcohol issues, anxiety, and depression were the most common conditions among the 52,000 children who presented with mental health disorders over the seven-year period.
Patients with mental health issues were more likely to stay longer in emergency and be admitted to hospital, compared to patients with physical issues.
Researcher and paediatrician Harriet Hiscock said many families did not realise their child was suffering from a mental health issue until they sought help at hospital.
“They think that the panic attacks are actually seizures, or the recurrent headaches or tummy aches are physically grounded problems, but they’re mental health problems,” she said.
Cases of anxiety and depression were significant contributors to the rise in admissions, but symptoms for children often present differently compared to adults.
“Anxiety might present with tummy pains, or headaches, or school refusal, and depression can more often present as irritability in young children and adolescents,” Professor Hiscock said.
“So it can be a bit harder to pick and I think sometimes these children then end up further into their problems without getting early help and early intervention, and end up in a crisis.”
Education, support needed in pre-school
Families who took part in the study said they were unable to access help for their children due to affordability issues, lengthy waiting lists, lack of available services and a lack of knowledge about where to find support.
A range of solutions were put forward by the institute in a bid to help children address their mental health problems early.
Measures included public health campaigns to improve mental health literacy and caregiving, and better equipping GPs and frontline health and educational professionals to recognise youth mental health issues.
The institute also recommended providing community-based mental health service for children under 12.
“I think we’ve got to look really carefully at early intervention, early support when we’ve got children in primary school and preschool because often there’s signs that things are going to go wrong without that support,” Professor Hiscock said.
She said a grassroots approach was vital in helping tackle the issue.
“The more support we have from health, from education sectors, from families, from our social care sectors as well … the better.”