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Australia must invest more in mental health services for children from birth to age 12 following the release of new data showing increased levels of psychological distress and suicide rates among people during early adulthood.

The National Mental Health Commission made the call in response to the third Australian Research Alliance for Children and Youth (ARACY) report card, which revealed increased levels of high or very high psychological distress among 18-24 year-olds and suicide rates among 15-25 year olds.

The report card uses data from a number of sources across a range of indicators to compare how Australian children and young people are faring across six key areas including health, learning and positive sense of identity and culture.

Mental health once again emerged as a growing issue, particularly amongst Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Youth aged 15-19, with a third experiencing a probable mental illness.

The Commission’s chief executive, Dr Peggy Brown, said investment in child and youth mental health must become a national priority to ensure the prevention and early intervention of issues so they do not intensify.

“We know that 75% of all cases of mental illness will occur by the time Australians reach 25 years old,” Dr Brown said. “When you’re young, the onset of mental illness disrupts every facet of your life – school, family, social life and job prospects – and your future potential.

“There’s an estimated 560,000 Australian children and adolescents (4-17 years old) in Australia who have a clinically significant mental health problem and many of them are at increased risk of suicidal behaviour.”

Dr Brown said while vital funding had targeted adolescent mental health through initiatives such as headspace, similar investment in children was minimal.

“Many issues which go on to develop into mental health problems in adolescence can be identified, prevented and managed if picked up earlier in childhood,” she said.

“The national approach needed is for better coordination and integration of services among different siloed providers to enable a healthy start to life for children.”

Professor Andrew Cashin, Mental Health Nurse Practitioner and Professor of Nursing at Southern Cross University, stressed any investment into early intervention should not focus solely on formal therapy, but also on promoting a healthy family context and activities that foster community participation and a sense of belonging.

“Intervention needs a broad focus to strengthen families and communities. The school curricula need to be strengthened in the focus on health and building health, and health systems literacy, to promote engagement and capabilities to facilitate positioning of young people at the centre of their own care and health promoting activity.”

Professor Cashin said nurses could play a significant role in intervention given they work with children, young people and families directly.

“Nurses are arguably the most holistic of health professionals in their focus and mission and are well placed to work with the level of individual, family and community. Nurses are person-centred in their focus with a mandate of service provision across the lifespan, including people with intellectual, developmental and psychological disabilities.”