Are parents missing cries for help?

UNKNOWN: New research from the Royal Children's Hospital suggests parents are unsure how to identify mental health problems their children were facing. Picture: Associated Press/Gemunu Amarasinghe
UNKNOWN: New research from the Royal Children's Hospital suggests parents are unsure how to identify mental health problems their children were facing. Picture: Associated Press/Gemunu Amarasinghe

New polling shows parents are not confident they can recognise signs their child is facing mental health problems.

Poll results released this week by the Royal Children’s Hospital found only 35 per cent of parents were confident they could recognise signs their child had a mental health problem.

The RCH National Child Health Poll found less than half of respondents were confident they knew where to seek help if children were experiencing mental health issues.

A quarter of parents did not know ongoing physical complaints could be signs of problems and a third did not regognise persistent sadness or frequent tearfulness was abnormal.

Bendigo psychologist Ivan Honey was not surprised researchers found many parents lacked the confidence to identify warning signs, saying they were often extremely busy and children were using more technology than ever before.

“It means unless there is a reasonable sort of connection between the parent and the child things like this can slip between the cracks,” he said.

In fact, the research found parents who connected with their children most days were more confident they could recognise problem that could arise.

Meanwhile, 15 per cent felt their child was too young to talk to and connect with, and 13 per cent said they were not sure what to talk about or how to connect.

Mr Honey said when parents knew their child reasonably well they would be able to pick up signs that would go over other peoples’ heads.

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“It’s about knowing their unique little signs. We express our distress in all sorts of different ways,” he said.

Mr Honey said the important thing about being with children was not the quantity of the time allocated. Rather, it was about quality.

“To me, its a big thing that we find out where the interests of the children lie. Then we are fostering a shared interest in it, so that they feel valued and have that connection,” he said.

“As parents we have some responsibility to guide our children to discover their own passions and interests. These are things which provide meaning, purpose and satisfaction in their lives.”

Mr Honey said he would always remember the advice of a father whose son had died by suicide.

“He said to me ‘You will never regret any time you spend enjoying being with your children. Never miss an opportunity’,” Mr Honey said.

Are problems better left alone?

Paediatrician and poll director Anthea Rhodes said a particularly concerning finding from the survey was that a third of parents believed a child’s mental health problems might be best left alone to work themselves out.

“Even if parents are unsure, there is no harm in having a conversation with their GP or school counsellor about any emotional, social or behavioural difficulties they think their child may be experiencing,” she said.

Mr Honey said parents should be alert to uncharacteristic, unhappy behavior.

“Now, I’m also aware we can’t be happy all the time, so we’ve got to be careful about this … children do have a lot of resource and they can work through some issues themselves,” he said.

“But I’m thinking ‘is this persisting over a period of time?’ Then it’s certainly worth looking into.”

Dr Rhodes said poll results showed parents felt their GP, teachers and school counsellors were potential sources of help for tackling concerns about their child’s mental health.

“This highlights the importance of investing resources to adequately train and support staff in schools and primary care providers to meet this need,” she said.

Bendigo South East Secondary College had a set up unique to the region, staffed by a nurse and professional social workers. Two former teachers who specialised in work with disengaged students and those with mental health issues were also on hand.

The school’s Student Support Centre facilitator Ange Tremain said it was a valuable resource for the school.

The centre was a space for those facing anxiety or distress, and students were encouraged to look out for their friends and be aware of sources of support. Staff and students took part in wellbeing events and training throughout the year.

Even if parents are unsure, there is no harm in having a conversation with their GP or school counsellor about any emotional, social or behavioural difficulties they think their child may be experiencing.

Dr Anthea Rhodes, paediatrician

The centre also worked closely with senior teaching staff, monitoring trends to see if multiple students were dealing with the same issue.

Ms Tremain said centres like hers were not the norm in schools, but the Department of Education did supply social workers, speech therapists and psychologists.

Ms Tremain said a lot of schools were getting “really smart” about who they employed in student wellbeing roles, replacing teachers with youth and social workers.

At Bendigo South East, teachers who noticed uncharacteristic behavior could call home to determine whether parents had noticed similar behavior, then discuss ways to help students.

Student Support Centre specialists could follow up if needed, sharing strategies with parents and helping them get in touch with external support agencies.

If this article has raised issues for you, call Lifeline Australia on 13 11 14.