‘It breaks my heart’: Australian parents say mental health strain on their children is worsening

After finishing her final year of high school in 2019, Amy’s* daughter had dreams of leaving Geelong, in Victoria, to travel to the UK for a working holiday using money saved from her waitressing job.

Then the pandemic and lockdowns hit.

“She lost her waitressing hours, and wasn’t eligible for jobkeeper due to not working in the cafe for long enough,” Amy says. “Her world contracted. She began living on social media, seeing her peers interstate and overseas living their best lives.”

Amy watched as her daughter, who usually filled her time with dance classes and work, “tumbled into the depths of depression, anxiety, thoughts of self-harm, and disordered eating”. While her two teenage sons adapted to high school remote learning and thrived in lockdown, Amy said her daughter lost weight and became more anxious.

“I basically dragged her to see a GP to get help,” Amy says.

Of two local psychologists she received a referral for, one had no appointments for two months, and the other was so busy they were not taking new clients. The youth mental health service, Headspace, was also overloaded.

“I reached out to my own psychologist’s rooms and barely held back tears begging for help,” Amy said. “They had no space for two months, yet they did have a pre-registration student who was months away from becoming registered. She could see my daughter in two weeks and, as she was not yet registered, no referral was needed and it cost only $50 per session.

“We took it. We are so grateful for that. Seeing my daughter suffer in her mind just breaks my heart. ”

New analysis from the Australian National University published on Friday shows like Amy, many parents or caregivers are struggling to find support for their children. In August, the university surveyed 3,135 Australians age 18 and older, 763 of whom were parents or caregivers with children age 18 and under living in their household from the time the pandemic hit. The sample had 1,368 children between them.

Parents and carers were asked about the mental health of their children, and reported they had seen the largest negative impact on the mental health of those aged five to 18 years, while there were fewer concerns for children aged two to four.

Co-author of the study, Prof. Nicholas Biddle, said 71% of parents and carers of young people aged 15 to 18 reported worsening mental health conditions for their children.

“A lot of this is due to the ongoing impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic and in particular extended lockdowns,” he said.

“Compared to other surveys earlier in the pandemic, these negative mental health impacts have clearly become a lot worse in their eyes. And it’s across the board for most children.”

The analysis shows 61.8% of parents and carers with children aged five to nine think their kids had worsening mental health conditions, while 63.4% with children aged 10 to 14 said the same.

Mental health conditions were largely the same across gender.

Parents and carers were also asked which type of health services their children most commonly required since the pandemic began. The most common type of service was for general health and medical issues (reported as needed by 27% of parents/carers), followed by mental health support (20.8%), and academic progress/tutoring (18.5%). Very few parents/carers in the sample reported that they needed help for drug and alcohol counselling for their children.

When asked ‘How easy or difficult was it to seek help from support services’, the study found that “the greatest barriers appear to be for those who sought help for mental health support, with around two-in-five carers reporting that it was difficult or very difficult, with 12.2% of the total sample reporting that it was very difficult.”

While Amy relates to this struggle to seek mental health support for children, she still considers herself lucky, since her daughter eventually received help and is slowly improving.

“There are many other families doing it much worse with their kids who already had difficult circumstances to deal with before the pandemic,” she said.

* Names have been changed to protect identity


Melissa Davey Medical editor

The GuardianTramp

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