Grant to improve mental health outcomes for children with neurodevelopmental disorders

Smiling girl with neurodevelopmental disorder in a playroom sitting on a chair

A Murdoch Children’s Research Institute-led project has secured federal funding to improve mental health outcomes for children with neurodevelopmental disorders (NDDs) from autism to cerebral palsy.

Speech and LanguageMCRI Angela Morgan Group Leader Professor Angela Morgan received the $500,000 National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC)-European Union (EU) collaborative research grant for the study, which aims to develop innovative approaches to mental health issues and increase quality of life for those with NDDs.

NDDs include autism spectrum disorders, cerebral palsy, attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), intellectual disabilities, and language and motor problems. Due to the complexity of symptoms, people with these disorders are more likely to experience mental health issues.

“Mental health problems affect 20 per cent of Australians and cost our government $11 billion in 2019-2020,” Professor Morgan said. Within any 12-month period, over half a million Australian children aged 4–17 experience a mental disorder, and the prevalence and burden are highest for those with pre-existing NDDs.  

“This is due to early onset and persistence of symptoms, frequent co-occurrence with mental health conditions including anxiety and mood disorders, risk for suicide, substance use disorders and other underlying health conditions.” 

In contrast to existing treatment methods, which rely on repeated documentation of risk factors and adverse outcomes, Professor Morgan has proposed a fundamental change in mental health management for NDD patients that focuses on understanding and promoting resilience. Her team will conduct a multi-scale study of resilience factors from biological to psychological and societal factors.

“By studying how children with NDDs positively adapt to challenges and adversity, and shifting to an approach that focuses on wellbeing and functioning of those individuals as their behaviour progresses with age, we will be able to treat these patients more effectively,” Professor Morgan said.

Professor Morgan will use this grant to improve our understanding of how risk and resilience affect mental health outcomes in people with NDDs, create new treatment evaluation tools, along with patients, parents and clinicians, and publish a government report with information and proposals on the issue to inform government policy. 

Professor Morgan said she hoped this project would not only improve mental health strategies and policies in Australia and around the world, but also improve outcomes across the lifespan for people with NDDs.  

In addition to receiving the NHMRC EU collaborative research grant, Professor Morgan, along with Murdoch Children’s Professor David Amor, are collaborating on a successful EU Horizon Europe Grant, led by the Institute Pasteur. Involvement in this project, titled Risk and Resilience in Developmental Diversity and Mental Health (R2D2-MH), enabled Professor Morgan to receive the EU collaborative research grant.

The NHMRC-(EU) collaborative research grants support Australian participation in leading international collaborative research under Horizon Europe.

*The content of this communication is the sole responsibility of MCRI and does not reflect the views of the NHMRC. NHMRC-EU grant number 2018124.