FIVE primary schools in the Bendigo and Chewton areas will participate in a pilot program that aims to empower teachers to intervene early when mental health issues arise in children.
Kangaroo Flat, Lockwood, Specimen Hill, Golden Square and Chewton primary schools, along with five others in Melbourne, will take part in the $1.2 million initiative from next year.
Under the program, experienced teachers will be trained in identifying and addressing mental health and behavioural issues, acting as a resource for school and parents.
The initiative is a partnership between the Murdoch Children's Research Institute, the Ian Potter Foundation and the Victorian government.
Dr Frank Oberklaid, research group leader at the MCRI, said schools were an ideal platform to address mental health issues in children.
All children went to school, he said, and such a setting was a "non-stigmatising" environment.
Dr Oberklaid said teachers were also in a good position to recognise signs of mental health issues and intervene early.
The teachers chosen to undertake training will work with classroom teachers to increase their confidence in managing behavioural issues and identifying mental health issues.
Dr Oberklaid said they would also act as a bridge between the school and external services that could help students with mental health issues and their families, with each school to map the available resources in their area.
In developing the program, he said, those leading the pilot would co-design it carefully with the schools.
Some of the work has already begun and come the new year, the pilot developers will start conducting surveys, focus groups and interviews to shape the initiative.
Dr Oberklaid said he expected it would begin to come into effect in schools from mid-2020.
Education Minister James Merlino said the government was ensuring the health of children so they could focus on learning.
"Mental health among students is one of the biggest concerns raised with me by both parents and teachers - this is a first step in looking at what more we can do in our schools to address this issue," Mr Merlino said.
Dr Oberklaid told the Bendigo Advertiser targeting mental health concerns in childhood was important because, for many people, this was when long-term issues emerged.
"We know from the research that half of adult mental health problems begin before the age of 14," he said.
Like any health condition, he said these issues became more complex and difficult to treat the longer they were left.
Research shows about one in seven children experience a mental health issue.
But unlike adolescents, who could turn to headspace, or adults, who could take themselves to a GP, Dr Oberklaid said children had to have their parents understand there was an issue and be able to take steps to address it.
Through the pilot, he said the school could become a resource for parents in this regard.
But Dr Oberklaid said the pilot was not aimed solely at children with mental health problems.
There were children who did not meet the diagnostic threshold for a mental illness, he said, but were experiencing some depression, anxiety or anger, who would receive help through the pilot.
Kangaroo Flat Primary School principal Kim Saddlier welcomed the opportunity to participate in an initiative that could increase the expertise of its staff in supporting students with mental health concerns.
"Any help in supporting teachers' confidence and capacity is really important," Ms Saddlier said.
She said the pilot would also give the school the chance to connect to health services and understand what resources were available.
Currently, Ms Saddlier said, her school would refer any students for which there were concerns to its own wellbeing team, who could then meet with the family and refer them to other services if required.
However, she pointed out each school did things differently.
Ms Saddlier said the health and wellbeing of students was a primary focus of schools.
"It's important as the literacy and numeracy we teach," Ms Saddlier said.
Dr Oberklaid said the project would involve an evaluation of the pilot, to provide an evidence base that it worked so it could expand into more schools.
He said he was pleased the Bendigo region was involved as regional and rural areas had different needs to the city.
This was echoed by Ms Saddlier, who hoped her school's involvement would provide a rural perspective on mental health.
She also hoped the pilot would provide an opportunity to show there needed to be clear pathways into health services.
Next year will also see the further roll-out of the Mental Health Practitioners in Schools initiative, which the government says will see mental health professionals working in every secondary school by 2022.
Eighteen secondary schools in the Loddon Campaspe region will see mental health practitioners - such as psychologists, mental health nurses and social workers - working from term one.
These schools are Bendigo Senior Secondary College, Bendigo South East College, Boort District P-12 School, Castlemaine Secondary College, Crusoe College, Eaglehawk Secondary College, East Loddon P-12 College, Echuca College, Kyneton Secondary College, Maryborough Education Centre, Pyramid Hill College, Rochester Secondary College, Wedderburn College, Weeroona College, Rushworth P-12 College, Kyabram P-12 College and Gisborne Secondary College.