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Byron Shire
February 5, 2023

A community approach to kids’ mental health

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Is your local physiotherapist informed about the impacts of natural-disaster-related trauma on 8 to 12-year-olds?

Does your optometrist understand of how COVID-related social isolation can contribute to depression amongst adolescents?

What, you may ask, do these mental health challenges have to do with hamstrings and improved vision? The answer, according to one of the region’s most respected health leaders, is that allied health professionals have a key role in helping our young people navigate through what has been an incredibly difficult time.

‘Just consider the traumatic events of the recent past,’ says Professor John Hurley of Southern Cross University (SCU), who is also the Vice-President of the Australian College of Mental Health Nurses.

‘If you are a nine-year-old child in our region, most of your sentient life-span has been defined by drought, floods, fires and COVID, along with the social dislocation and economic deprivation arising from these.’

With the region’s mental health services struggling to arrest the serious decline in the mental health of local kids, despite their best efforts, Professor Hurley argues that other health professionals must be part of a whole-of-community response.

This idea will be front and centre at an upcoming forum; Trauma-Informed Care for Allied Health Professionals, being held on 26 November at SCU.

‘This forum is seeking to say; there’s lots of health professionals out there – physios, audiologists, pharmacists – and in our type of community where we don’t have a lot of specialised services, we need them to help,’ Hurley says.

‘Along with teachers, sports coaches, surf clubs etc – we need them to act as our mental health first responders.’

‘Put simply, if I’m a physio working on the hamstring of a local young person, I need to start from the assumption that they’re experiencing trauma.

‘That needs to be reflected in the way I treat that young person, but also in my ability to spot the signs of trauma and direct their parent or guardian to places where the child can get help.’

The disturbing state of mental health on the north coast has been well documented.

Northern NSW has some of the highest rates of prescription for psychotropic medications for children anywhere in Australia.

The region is also challenged by rates of self-harm, suicide, and psychiatric admission that are well above the state average.

At the same time, like many regional areas, the north coast is seriously lacking in properly funded mental health services.

‘The services that we do have are doing an amazing job given the [limited] funding and resources they have. There’s a lack of a specialist workforce for children and younger people and a lack of diversity within the workforce that we do have.

‘Predominantly, the people who get funded are psychologists. Other disciplines – counsellors, psychotherapists etc – don’t get the federal funding stream.

‘If you can’t get access to a psychologist because the vast majority are at capacity, or you can’t afford to pay the gap between the Medicare rebate and what they’re charging, then that source of help is pretty much out of reach.’

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