Good mental health is important for a child’s overall wellbeing, including their physical, educational, social, emotional and cognitive (thinking, reasoning and learning) development.

Sonny interviews Professor Frank Oberklaid AM on why mental health research is important

Half of all adult mental health problems start in childhood. Find out how MCRI researchers are intervening early, as soon as children start struggling, using mental health tools like Mental Health in Primary Schools (MHiPS) and Decode Mental Health and Wellbeing (Matterworks) in schools to tackle these issues early in children's lives.

Half of all adult mental health problems start in childhood. Find out how MCRI researchers are intervening early, as soon as children start struggling, using mental health tools like Mental Health in Primary Schools (MHiPS) and Decode Mental Health...

Half of all adult mental health problems start in childhood. Find out how MCRI researchers are intervening early, as soon as children start struggling, using mental health tools like Mental Health in Primary Schools (MHiPS) and Decode Mental Health and Wellbeing (Matterworks) in schools to tackle these issues early in children's lives.

Girl with carer smiling

Mental health and wellbeing

Parents, carers and other significant adults play an important role in their child’s development and building and promoting their mental health and wellbeing. In many cases, children and adolescents who have good mental health carry it with them throughout life.

However, some experience mental health conditions during childhood or adolescence. Children with mental health disorders are at increased risk of developing a mental disorder as adults. Researchers believe early intervention should be targeted at primary school-age children (and even earlier) and those who are experiencing symptoms rather than waiting for a diagnosis.

Examples include anxiety disorders, Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), depression and other mood disorders, eating disorders, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Without treatment, these conditions can prevent children from reaching their full potential.

Girl with carer smiling

Who does it affect?

Who does it affect?

  • Half of all adult mental health problems start in childhood.
  • About one in seven Australian children experience a mental health condition and boys are more often affected.
  • ADHD is the most common mental health disorder for children followed by anxiety. Nearly seven per cent of children aged four to 17 have an anxiety disorder and five per cent of adolescents have a major depressive disorder.
  • One in ten adolescents self-harm and suicide is the leading cause of death for young Australians.
  • Young people with AutismADHD, eating disorders, those who are bullied, have suffered trauma or are transgender have higher rates of anxiety and depression.

Our mental health research

Our mental health research

Our research investigates how to improve mental healthcare for children and adolescents through patient trials and studies of the organisation of care. We work with The Royal Children’s Hospital Health Services Research Unit which focuses on developing and testing new approaches to move care from hospitals to the community. We work to improve access, quality, outcomes and costs. 

Our review found that experiencing mental health symptoms before age 14 predicts mental disorders in adulthood, supporting prevention and early intervention for primary school children. We co-developed the Mental Health in Primary Schools (MHiPS) program with paediatricians, educators, psychologists, researchers and teachers to help teachers better identify and support at-risk students and build relationships and referral pathways to local mental health services.

The MHiPS program has been rolled out to 100 Victorian Primary Schools so far and will scale up across the state from 2023. By 2026, every government school in Victoria will employ a Mental Health and Wellbeing Leader.

We found that most Australian children with mental health disorders are not receiving professional help. Girls, young children and families from non-English speaking backgrounds are the least likely to access services.

Fewer than one in four children with mental health problems saw a health professional in the 18 months after they were identified as having a problem. Families may delay seeking help hoping that their child will ‘grow out’ of it, may not know where to get help or be unable to afford it.

To remove these barriers, our researchers are developing and testing models of accessible and affordable mental healthcare. We’re developing and evaluating child and family hubs that could extend nationwide and an online e-Hub to connect with support.

We have also created a new tool called the Children’s Wellbeing Continuum that will help reduce stigma, detect which children are struggling and link them to early support services. 

Our research focuses on preventing and intervening early in incidents of childhood trauma or adversity to reduce rates of depression, anxiety and suicide.

We’re trialling an intervention to reduce anxiety in children with ADHD and investigating adolescent mental health after mild traumatic brain injury.

Our vision

Our vision

We aim to reduce mental health problems in children and adolescents by emphasising prevention and early intervention over crisis support. Improved access to treatment and better treatments are other goals which will have ongoing impacts and transform young lives.

Where to next?

Where to next?

We will continue to work to prevent mental health problems in children. We will partner with families, health professionals, community organisations and schools to ensure children get the right help and support, in the right place and at the right time.