Mental health pilot program expands to more primary schools

Twenty six schools, across metropolitan and regional north and south west Victoria, will have a child mental health and wellbeing co-ordinator embedded in the school to improve care pathways for children identified with possible mental health issues. Image: Shutterstock

A pilot mental health program successfully trialled in Victorian primary schools will be expanded to a total of 26 schools in 2021.

The program, developed by the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute (MCRI) in collaboration with the University of Melbourne and the Victorian Department of Education and Training, was piloted in 10 primary schools last year with feasibility results encouraging, strong support from schools and indications that it can improve care pathways for children with emerging mental health issues.

The program embeds a child mental health and wellbeing coordinator within schools to help identify and manage emerging mental health issues in students and provide connections between education, social and health services.

The 16 additional schools are located around Thomastown, Hoppers Crossing, Ararat, Stawell and Geelong.

Professor Frank Oberklaid, MCRI Group Leader of Policy and Equity and University of Melbourne honorary, said schools were the perfect platform to pick up any mental health problems early before they become entrenched.

“The coordinators act as a point of reference within schools for teachers to refer kids to,” he said. “Teachers are ideally placed to observe emerging mental health issues and refer kids and families to the mental health and wellbeing coordinator, who then acts as a liaison between schools, families and health services.”

One in four children has a mental health disorder at some point during their childhood, with puberty a key developmental stage when mental health issues emerge.

“Feedback from the principals in our first wave of 10 schools has been overwhelmingly positive, and we have seen improved care pathways for kids who may otherwise have slipped through the cracks,” Professor Oberklaid said.

Kangaroo Flat Primary School principal Kim Saddlier said the program had helped her staff better understand students’ mental health needs and had identified some who needed extra support.

“In addition to working directly with students and upskilling staff, the practitioner has helped the school understand how to navigate referrals onto external agencies so students and families can get the support they need,” she said.

“This extra training and support means staff feel as though they can hit the ground running in 2021.”

Victorian Principals Association President Andrew Dalgleish, who applauded the program extension, said he looked forward to the results and positive outcomes for the students, their families and schools involved.

“The research shows clearly that through early intervention and support the foundations for lifelong mental health and wellbeing are established during childhood,” Mr Dalgleish said.

“This will be of significant benefit to all in our community as we strive to achieve resilience in all young people thereby enabling an increased likelihood of their reaching their full potential.”

The trial has received a second round of $500,000 from the Ian Potter Foundation, with a further $3.5 million being announced by the Victorian Department of Education and Training.

Following the end of the expanded trial in 2021, a formal evaluation will be performed before further funding is committed to roll the program out state-wide.