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Children’s human rights violated by ‘invisible crisis’

Over half of children with mental health disorders have trouble accessing the medical help they need, according to new research.

Canadian researchers have found that one in eight children suffer from a mental health disorder and only 44.2 per cent of those children have access to help, and the problem is worse in higher income countries.

“We have illuminated an invisible crisis in children’s mental health and unacceptable service shortfalls in high-income countries – including in Canada – to a degree that violates children’s rights,” said study author Charlotte Waddell.

"We simply don't put enough funding and basic services out there for children's mental health.

"We put it out there for child physical health. Certainly in Canada, any child coming in with a fairly serious problem like cancer or diabetes or an infection, they're going to get treated promptly. We simply don't fund that level of service provision [for mental health]," Waddell, a health sciences professor at Simon Fraser University, told Education Review.

The study looked at 14 prevalence surveys conducted in 11 high-income countries that included a total of 61,545 children aged four to 18 years. The 14 surveys were conducted between 2003 and 2020 in Canada as well as the US, Australia, Chile, Denmark, Great Britain, Israel, Lithuania, Norway, South Korea and Taiwan.

While Waddell believes 12.7 per cent is a robust number, she believes it is likely an underestimate. She says that the children represented in the figure are "severely affected" with symptoms bad enough that they cannot function at school or at home, and some children with lesser symptoms may go unnoticed.

And with the added stressors that the pandemic has brought, Waddell expects that figure to rise.

"The 12.7 per cent is likely an underestimate," she says. "In this era of the pandemic people who were already socioeconomically disadvantaged have been further disadvantaged. So, these are pre-COVID data, that's important to know as well. It gives you a benchmark. We should all be going and doing surveys now."

On top of funding issues, Waddell says that the stigma surrounding mental health still prohibits many people getting timely help.

"I'm a child and adolescent psychiatrist. I encounter lots of people who just don't believe that these problems exist for children. They may not even believe they exist for adults," she says.

"These conditions, if someone has felt bad anxiety or depression, or even something like psychosis, it may not be that evident until things really deteriorate. So there's still a lot of people probably that don't see this as a problem, because they just simply are unaware until it happens to their child or their sister or their friend. And then they learn."

Although the numbers are high, Waddell says that one positive is that psychologists know how to effectively treat many mental health issues that children face, but funding is key to getting those interventions in place.

Waddell also says that Australia is ahead of the pack when it comes to addressing children's mental health.

"I have been very impressed to learn over the years, for example, that there's been a lot of active interest in improving children's mental health. You've taken an interest as a country in prevention programmes ... I think you're world leaders looking at prevention of things like anxiety disorders, which are the most common.

"Really fantastic programmes, like the Friends programme in schools prevents anxiety. So there's been a bigger interest in leadership, and you've also done large surveys and shown improved access to services over 10 or 15 years in Australia. We haven't done that in Canada."

And she says that teachers are well placed to spot children with mental health disorders and help advocate on their behalf.

"The teachers that I'm aware of, the good ones, really know the kids well, and they know a lot about the home situation. They know a lot about the community situation and they care very deeply. So teachers are beautifully positioned to see changes in how kids are doing over time," she says.

"They're beautifully positioned to just check in ... Teachers can then be powerful advocates to get mental health services for kids or to get social services."

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