Sunday, June 27, 2010

Mental health of Australian kindergarteners to be tracked for next 20 years

From The Australian:

Every kindergarten student currently enrolled in NSW will be tracked for the next 20 years in an attempt to find clues on mental illness.

Using the data, which includes birth and education records, researchers from the University of NSW hope to identify early markers that may be associated with the development of schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, depression and other mental and social disorders.

The data is being made available by the Department of Education and the Department of Health for more than 80,000 five-year-olds currently enrolled in NSW. It has been approved by the two major research ethics committees in NSW.

Individual children and schools will not be identified in the study, which if successful may lay the groundwork for an Australia-wide model.

"The study will focus particularly on children's emotion regulation, social behaviour, academic achievement and cognitive function and may eventually help to establish effective early detection and prevention programs," study chair Professor Vaughan Carr told The Weekend Australian.

News of the study, set to begin in the next few months, comes on the back of calls for the introduction of a national mental health curriculum in schools.

Australian of the Year and mental health advocate, Pat McGorry, said it was "crucial" mental health awareness was incorporated into the school curriculum, and believed it may help to reduce the amount of deaths related to mental illness.

"Mental illness is the main health issue for young people . . . awareness around the associated risks and warning signs should definitely be mandated in schools," Professor McGorry said.

"Every student should be taught about ill mental health and how to recognise it, because then it might not become so serious."

There is currently no mandated program in Australian schools to teach students about mental health, despite several successful voluntary initiatives.

Tracy Zilm, the national training co-ordinator for MindMatters -- one of the largest voluntary mental health education programs -- echoed the call for a national curriculum, but feared there could be resistance among teachers if such a syllabus was forced on them.

"It's tricky because the attitude that teachers bring changes when you mandate things," she said.

MindMatters was launched in secondary schools across Australia 10 years ago.

"I believe that every student in our school system should be exposed to a curriculum that deals with issues around mental health," Ms Zilm said.

Parent Stephen Grieve, 62, said he would be "more than happy" for his six-year-old son Ben to learn about mental health.

"If we can create a greater level of knowledge and sensitivity around mental illness from a young age, then kids will be able to take that knowledge with them when they move into the greater community," he said.

However, Australian Parents Council executive director Ian Dalton said schools and teachers "should not have to bear the burden of dealing with mental health" and he did not support implementing a national mental health curriculum.

"It would be something we would approach quite cautiously," Mr Dalton said.

"Getting (mental health) education right is important but it should be a more strategic approach that encompasses service providers, families and schools."