House debates

Thursday, 6 March 2014


Child Mental Health

4:39 pm

Photo of Tim WattsTim Watts (Gellibrand, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

No member will disagree with me when I say that the core mission of our education system is ensuring that our children can achieve their full potential and overcome any barriers to that achievement. Yet, often, barriers to children reaching their potential in the classroom are created by events beyond the school gates. One such barrier are the mental health issues that face many children in Australia today. It is only in recent years that mental health has begun to receive the attention it deserves in our workplaces, our health care system and our schools. We are only now beginning to examine the incidence of mental health issues in children.

However, we know that this issue is by no means an isolated or uncommon one. Research suggests that 14 per cent of Australian children and adolescents aged four to 17 have mental health issues or behavioural problems, yet only one out of every four young people with mental health issues has received professional mental health care. So while awareness of these issues may be rising there is still much work that needs to be done to address the issue. The loneliness and social isolation of depression, stress and anxiety are compounded when felt by those who are not old enough to articulate these emotions and those who cannot comprehend exactly what they are going through and do not understand the source of their emotions. Action is needed from both schools and government to make sure that mental health issues facing our children are effectively addressed. This is particularly important in communities which have undergone rapid social dislocation.

This is soon to be the future of many families in Melbourne's west. The loss of the Toyota plant in Altona, due to the negligence of the Abbott government, has cost 2,500 workers their jobs. A further 1,000 jobs at the BAE shipyards in Williamstown are currently under threat and could be saved by the government now if it wished to act. Imagine the impact on your sense of identity when, having committed decades of your life to building a unique skill set in our manufacturing industries, you are then told that you can never use that skill set again. Research has shown us the emotional toll that this has on workers. Middle-aged workers who lose their jobs have a decrease in life expectancy of 1½ years. The stress literally takes more than a year off their lives. Both the parents and children of affected families share this trauma.

It is hard for the stress within the family home not to be felt by children, creating fears and anxieties that they are unable to understand. This stress has been shown, tragically, to have an impact on children's ability to learn. Studies show that the child is 15 per cent more likely to repeat a grade at school if they have a parent who has lost their job. So communities undergoing social dislocation and mass redundancies need support services to address the spikes in anxiety and depression that both children and their parents will be feeling. Our communities and schools need to be equipped to deal with these mental health issues so they do not hamper the ability of these children to learn and to reach their full potential.

There is one government supported mental health program targeted at primary schoolchildren that deserves particular recognition. The KidsMatter program is being run throughout primary schools in Australia and is designed to improve the mental health of children by equipping them with the emotional tools necessary to understand their fears and anxieties. At the most basic level this may be by teaching children to identify their best self and classifying their feelings according to their colour. The gains to emotional intelligence through these programs are substantial. Children as young as nine and 10 can distinguish between assertiveness and aggression, and understand what it is to feel overwhelmed and unacknowledged.

Primary school teachers and principals have told me how important they believe this program is to their children. This innovative method of mental health care has been producing results in academia as well. An extensive study of the program was recently undertaken by Flinders University. This study found that the more effectively the program was introduced in a school, the higher the level of student academic achievement at that school. In fact, the difference in achievement equated to six months more schooling by the end of year 7.

The KidsMatter program is the sort of program that will help our children deal with the ramifications of the changes threatening my community. The 28 schools in Melbourne's west that currently have this program in place should be commended for taking such an innovative approach to their children's learning. This program should be rolled out in as many schools as possible across the country, but particularly in Melbourne's west, which is currently facing the mental health pressures associated with mass redundancies.

However, the future of this program hangs in the balance, as funding for KidsMatter expires at the end of June this year and Abbott's axe hangs over the future of the program. The Abbott government should recognise the effectiveness of this program and commit to providing it with the additional funding it needs to continue operating. Given the coalition government's negligence in allowing the jobs of thousands of constituents in my electorate to be lost in the manufacturing sector in Melbourne's west, it is even more important than ever that the Prime Minister supports the programs that will support these children through a period of significant emotional stress in their lives.