Improving childhood preschool attendance and parental mental health could reduce child and youth mental health inequities, according to a new Murdoch Children’s Research Institute (MCRI) study published in the American Academy of Pediatrics.

MCRI Professor Sharon Goldfeld led the study which found that increasing children’s preschool attendance, improving the mental health of parents and addressing social and economic disadvantages in the early years could reduce the risk of children developing mental health problems later on. The study used data from the Longitudinal Study of Australian Children, a birth cohort of 5,107 children which includes children from all parts of Australia that commenced in 2004.

Professor Goldfeld said, “Children’s mental health and wellbeing is affected by where they live, learn and grow. Good mental health allows children to make friends, to play and learn, and to deal with challenges.

“When children experience social and economic disadvantage, they are more likely to have mental health problems. It’s important to act early to prevent these issues and help children be as happy and healthy as possible.”

The study compared the outcomes of children who experienced socioeconomic disadvantage in the first year of life and used this to understand the connection between inequalities and children’s mental health problems at age 10 to 11 years.

The findings showed that 32.8 per cent of children from disadvantaged backgrounds had increased mental health symptoms compared to 18.7 per cent of non-disadvantaged children.

Researchers analysed the data from the Longitudinal Study of Australian Children and showed that it is possible to reduce the risk of poor mental health among children experiencing inequities with early intervention.

“The National Children’s Mental Health and Wellbeing Strategy tells us that around half of children with poor mental health don’t get help from professionals,” Professor Goldfeld said. “Our study identifies concrete steps we can take towards preventing poor mental health among children, building a solid base to help children develop and maintain good mental health and wellbeing.”

The study authors note that interventions proposed in this research are by themselves not enough to close the socioeconomic contributions to children’s mental health problems. Combining a range of strategies in early childhood is ultimately necessary to improve the mental health of children and their families.

Professor Goldfeld said mental health problems in children were a significant public health concern, so it was important to act early to help prevent the national and international burden of the disease.


This work was supported by the Australian Research Council Discovery Grant (DP160101735), Australian Research Council Linkage Projects (LP190100921), and the Victorian Government’s Operational Infrastructure Support Program. Individual researchers were also supported by the NHMRC Practitioner Fellowship (grant number 1155290), NHMRC Career Development Fellowship (grant number 1111160), Australian Research Council Discovery Early Career Award (grant number DE190101326), as well as the Spanish State Research Agency, the European Regional Development Fund (ECO2016-76506-C4-2-R), Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology University VC Senior Research Fellowship and the Melbourne Children’s LifeCourse initiative – funded by a Royal Children’s Hospital Foundation Grant (2018-984).