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Building capacity and confidence in talking about mental health

Written by Dr Carmen Pace, Clinical Psychologist and Knowledge Transfer Fellow, Centre of Research Excellence in Cerebral Palsy

Being a parent of a child with a disability involves both rewarding and joyful moments, as well as more difficult times – just like parenting any child. However, we know that parents caring for a child with a disability face some additional challenges, including uncertainty about the future and navigating complex service and funding systems.

This can impact relationships, finances and community engagement. Parents tell us that they can feel frustrated and overwhelmed at times.

Research shows that parents of children with disabilities are also at high risk of mental health difficulties, including depression and anxiety. However, most do not access professional help, with a wide range of barriers reported including time, ease of access, and not being able to prioritise their needs over those of their child.

We also know that health professionals providing early intervention services for children are ideally placed to support parents to improve their mental health, yet they report that they often do not feel equipped to do so.

Improving parental mental health is not only important for parents themselves, but it also has implications for children’s wellbeing and therapy outcomes.

For these reasons, the Centre of Research Excellence in Cerebral Palsy, based at MCRI, has chosen to prioritise this area. We are leading research that will ultimately improve outcomes and support services for parents and carers of children with disabilities.

We’ve recently created an organisational change and professional development program for services working with children with disabilities.

The aim of the program is to build the capacity and confidence of health professionals who work with children with disabilities to support parents. It provides clinicians with a framework for addressing mental health and wellbeing with parents, equipping them with strategies for having these conversations and tools for decision making around taking further action.

We are also working to implement changes to allow parent mental health to be prioritised and increase support for staff to do so. 

We have recently finished the pilot phase of this project, and have had very positive feedback so far.

We’re now completing a formal evaluation to examine satisfaction with the program and changes to practice. We’re looking forward to being able to report on these results in the near future, and hope to move towards being able to have this implemented across Australia so that every family with a child with a disability can benefit from holistic and comprehensive support. 

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