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ACU academic joins call for Medicare change to help protect children’s mental health

Growing concern: “I think that the COVID-19 situation has actually accentuated some of the challenges that many families are facing.”

LEADING child protection expert Daryl Higgins is backing a call for an urgent change to Medicare rebates to help address mental health issues among children.

Professor Higgins, who is director of the Institute of Child Protection Studies at the Australian Catholic University, joined a list of prominent health academics calling for the change.

They want Medicare rebates to be changed to cover families seeking parenting advice to protect their children’s mental health.

“Currently Medicare rebates are only available for services to be provided to the person with the health problem,” Prof Higgins said.

“This means, that if children are struggling with mental health problems, services must be provided directly to the child.”

In an open letter to the Federal Government on behalf of the Parenting and Family Research Alliance, Prof Higgins joined chair in health psychology at Deakin University Professor John Toumbourou and director of the Judith Lumley Centre at La Trobe University Professor Jan Nicholson to point to the glaring gap.

“We call on the Federal Government to enable effective parenting programs to be delivered by psychologists and other authorised practitioners as part of the Better Access to Mental Health Care Initiative,” they said.

“Child mental health is greatly affected by parenting.

“However, the current Medicare system does not fund service assistance to parents to advise them how to take effective actions to improve the mental health of their children and families.”

Prof Higgins said the Commonwealth Mental Health and Wellbeing Pandemic Response Plan recommended children in mental distress, and their families, have access to programs that met their needs.

“This makes sense, given the increasing number of families experiencing unemployment, economic stress and social isolation due to the pandemic,” he said.

“The loss of freedom, not being able to connect with friends and loved ones and home schooling is putting enormous pressure on families and they need extra support with mental health, well-being and suicide prevention.

“I think that the COVID-19 situation has actually accentuated some of the challenges that many families are facing.”

The alliance has raised the alarm as the Victorian Government announced $60 million in mental health funding for people struggling to cope in the pandemic, after it was revealed there had been a sharp increase in Victorians presenting to hospital due to mental illness and self-harm.

The biggest rise was seen among young people, with a 33 per cent increase in hospital admissions for self-harm compared to the same time last year.

Prof Higgins said a recent review of Medicare rebates recommended they be extended to fund parent interventions, and this was supported by the Australian Psychological Society.

He said Australia was a world leader in developing and disseminating parenting programs that have been carefully evaluated and shown to be effective in improving the mental health of children and parents.

However, research showed less than 10 per cent of families in Australian schools had access to evidence-based parenting programs.

“So, we have a strong evidence base about what works to support those parents; we just don’t have a public health system that allows them to access that for free,” Prof Higgins said.

“This is an issue that requires urgent attention.”

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