31 August 2021

Increase in children presenting to ED with mental health problems, parents struggle with new delta risk

| Dominic Giannini
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Dr Elizabeth Moore

Coordinator-General of Office for Mental Health and Wellbeing Dr Elizabeth Moore. Photo: Michelle Kroll.

There has been a sustained increase in children and young Canberrans presenting to emergency departments with mental health issues over the course of the pandemic.

ACT Coordinator-General of the Office for Mental Health and Wellbeing Dr Elizabeth Moore confirmed the increase following reports that 40 children in NSW are rushed to hospital for self-harm and suicidal ideation every day – an increase of more than 30 per cent compared to last year.

There has been a 20 per cent increase in mental health presentations over the past 18 months, but spikes during lockdowns can be much higher, Dr Moore said.

“Those spikes do not have to be related to our lockdowns. Our kids are very socially aware and sometimes [spikes] are related to lockdowns elsewhere,” she said.

“It is why we are trying to build that community resilience.”

The anxiety felt by young Canberrans is also being mirrored by their parents who are similarly trying to adapt to the new restrictions, including the need to homeschool children.

“One of the reasons we are all so anxious is this time it is qualitatively different – our kids are at risk [from the delta strain].

“Others are feeling worried about their ability to cope with home learning.”

Children and young people have borne the brunt of the Territory’s delta outbreak after clusters in a number of Canberra schools resulted in more than one-third of all cases being in people under the age of 17.

Almost 85 per cent of cases are in people under the age of 44.

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The ACT Government announced an additional $260,000 funding to extend existing mental health support services on the same day it extended the lockdown for a further two weeks to 5:00 pm, Friday, 17 September.

The funding includes $40,000 for Woden Community Service’s suicide prevention services, $40,000 for Carers ACT to support carers at risk of isolation and mental illness due to the lockdown, and $40,000 for Catholic Care for services helping young people suffering moderate to severe mental illness requiring intensive support at home.

Funding of $40,000 has also been provided to Perinatal Wellbeing for families caring for a newborn or expecting a baby and Meridian to support vulnerable LGBTQI+ Canberrans. A further $20,000 will go towards resources and activities to help reach Canberrans who do not use social media or require printed material.

Dr Moore said that with the level of uncertainty being caused by the pandemic, it was important to remember what you can and cannot control.

“It is that ability to look at your anxiety and make a plan for yourself,” she said.

READ MORE PJ’s wait highlights ongoing shortage of mental health support in the ACT

While long wait times and increased demands have left many Canberrans unable to seek professional help in the capital, Dr Moore said digital resources were important in addressing mental ill-health during the lockdown.

“Beyond Blue has an online forum set up for young people to talk about COVID. You have a fabulous [resource] called Emerging Minds which has pieces there for children, families and teachers,” she said.

“It is about building that resilience and that self-management that is really important while we go through a period that is unprecedented.”

Mental Health Minister Emma Davidson said her office continued to hear from Canberrans who were finding it difficult to cope during lockdown due to the disruptions it had caused in their life.

The lockdown had exacerbated the situation for vulnerable Canberrans experiencing homelessness or drug and alcohol issues, especially if they could no longer access their usual support services due to the restrictions, she said.

More digital services and online resources are available at www.emhprac.org.au.

If you or someone you know is struggling, you can call Lifeline’s 24-hour crisis support line on 13 11 14. If it is an emergency, call triple zero (000).

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