More and more children are becoming susceptible to a host of mental health problems. It is time funding for research into the issue was stepped up, Australian experts stress.
"We get kids as young as three who we know are on a path to significant problems in later life," says Professor Mark Dadds, a research director of Child Behaviour Research Clinic at the University of New South Wales.
"Most mental health problems begin in childhood and adolescence but these kids get very little attention and very little of the health dollar," Professor Dadds says. "Only eight per cent of mental health funding is spent on children but we know from ground-breaking work done right here in Australia that mental health problems are identifiable and treatable much earlier than most people think."
Professor Dadds was speaking on the eve of the launch of The Children's Mental Health Research Fund by Professor Marie Bashir, Governor of New South Wales early this month.
Donations are being sought for the new fund, which is administered by the UNSW Foundation. It will support specialist staff and specific projects o improve understanding and treatments of children's mental health issues.
One project is a trial aimed at using a natural human hormone for early intervention in treating the social interaction difficulties experienced by people with autism spectrum disorders (ASD). Another is for new equipment to track children's attention and eye gaze while scanning brain activity, based on a recent discovery that children with a severe form of conduct disorder also have difficulties recognizing specific emotions in other people.
"All the big epidemiological studies show that behaviour problems in young kids are the most common precursors of all adult mental health problems. Some kids, of course, will grow out of them and become healthy adults. But within that group are tomorrow's adolescents and adults with anxiety disorders, psychoses, depression and so on.
"Left untreated, they create immeasurable social adversity for individuals, families, and schools; as well as costing Australia millions of dollars every year through the general health, mental health, criminal justice and education systems.
"Yet having worked with more than 500 families since 2007, we know we can have great success through our well-developed, evidence-based treatments. We are turning life around for many of these kids, and for their families.
"Australia really has been a leader in this field but we need to build on our successes in diagnosis and treatment but we desperately need to build our cross-disciplinary capacity by establishing specialist positions in molecular genetics, bioinformatics, and child mental health."
Collaborating with other leading child health groups, including Royal Far West and MH-Kids, Professor Dadds and his team are seeking special public support for research projects that are not funded by any government body, despite their potential to shed new light on the biological factors underlying pervasive mental health issues and lead to more innovative treatment and prevention strategies.
The fund in particular has four fund-raising goals which include:
Equipment to track attention and eye gaze while scanning brain activity in children with autism spectrum disorder;
Genome scanning of 10 children in the four major child mental health categories; ($3,000 per child) and genetic profiling tests and creation of a database;
Possible Post-Doctoral or Chair position in Child Mental Health & Genetics;
Hormone and Treatment trial.