Minimum ratio of school psychologists needed as mental illness soars

Mental health experts and principals are pushing for a new national benchmark of one school-based psychologist for every 500 students across Australia to address the alarming rates of mental illness among children.

About 600,000 school-aged children – about one in seven – experience a mental health disorder each year with 20 per cent of those starting primary school education showing high levels of emotional problems.

Mental health experts want a new national benchmark of one school-based psychologist for every 500 students. Credit:iStock

With groundbreaking data showing poor mental health and suicide costs the country $200 billion a year, national cabinet is this year poised to make sweeping changes beyond the health system to fix it.

Australian Psychological Society president and clinical psychologist, Tamara Cavenett, said the proposed ratio should be a new national standard funded in next month’s federal budget.

She told The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald that teachers and school communities did not currently have the resources and skills to address the high levels of mental health issues affecting children, especially after problems that have been exacerbated following the COVID-19 pandemic.

“A kid in Blacktown should have the same access to mental health services in schools as a kid in Toorak or Vaucluse,” Ms Cavenett said.

“We have had review after review tell us what we need is early intervention and prevention to stop mental health and behavioural issues snowballing and continuing into adulthood.”

She said an estimated 50 per cent of adult mental illness begins before 14 years of age and if support was absent – or provided too late – the social and economic consequences can worsen.

Australia’s state-based education system – encompassing state, independent and Catholic schools – have no standard ratio for school psychologists, qualified counsellors or chaplains.

In the United States, President Joe Biden has pledged $1 billion toward the school-based mental health workforce so schools can hire psychologists, counsellors, and other mental health professionals.

“There is a strong economic case for investing early in a child’s life,” Ms Cavnett said. “Economic analysis of early intervention and prevention programs for children shows a return of between $1 and $10.50 for each dollar spent.”

Malcolm Elliott, president of the Australian Primary Principals Association, said school psychologists had been important to education for decades and he supported the call for increased numbers in school.

“Our world is more complex than ever – and the background of disruption is taking its toll on parents and their children,” Mr Elliott said.

“Teachers, children and families need access to psychological services that are provided by qualified experts, timely and targeted to the needs of individual children and their families. The earlier an expertly designed and managed intervention the better, and the more likely it is to succeed.”

Dr Christine Grove, an educational and developmental psychologist and researcher at Monash University, said parents and guardians struggle to identify the mental health needs of their children and would benefit from the expertise and knowledge of school psychologists.

“Despite having the best intentions and caring deeply about the needs of their child, parents often incorrectly assume that their child will recognise when they’re struggling and reach out for help,” Dr Grove said.

“Young people want and need access to mental health information and resources, but research on mental health literacy tells us young people are sometimes unable to recognise the signs of mental ill-health and are often reluctant to seek help.”

National cabinet has asked for a new mental health agreement between the Commonwealth and the states by November, with Victoria to act as the first trial site.

Assistant Minister to the Prime Minister for Mental Health and Suicide, David Coleman, has flagged earlier intervention into schools as a key priority and has also not ruled out further regulation of the online space.

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