Professor Frank Oberklaid and Dr Tim Moore contribute witness statements to the Royal Commission into Australia’s Mental Health System. Access their statements and learn about the importance of the first thousand days, and why language matters for children’s mental health.
Children’s mental and emotional health are essential components of early development, yet, research, policy and health advocates often observe a lack of awareness or understanding of child mental health. The language we choose to use can play a role in raising awareness and moving people to act to protect children’s mental health.
Language and child mental health
Professor Frank Oberklaid, Foundation Director of the Centre for Community Child Health and Co-Group Leader of Child Health Policy, Equity and Translation at the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute suggests the way we talk about children’s mental health can help children and families to receive the support and care they need to thrive.
“The term mental health can be a barrier to some parents seeking help with concerns about behaviour, anxiety and depression, and many are reluctant to acknowledge that their child has a mental health problem,” says Prof Oberklaid.
“We need to talk about mental health in a way that resonates with parents and enables them to raise concerns and seek support early. We have been testing the idea of a continuum rather than talking about mental health problems and specific diagnoses; this groups children along the continuum as being healthy, coping, struggling or unwell. There has been strong support for beginning to change the language in this way, and hopefully, this will reduce stigma and encourage parents to seek help earlier if their child is struggling.”
The importance of the first 1000 days
A range of experiences in the first thousand days – the period from conception, throughout pregnancy, and during a child’s first two years, are capable of impacting on children’s emotional, physical, and mental health. Research has also linked many challenges of adult life such as mental health problems and obesity with processes and experiences that take place during the first thousand days.
Building strong foundations in early life is critical for supporting healthy development, and health and wellbeing into adulthood, including positive mental health.
Dr Tim Moore, Senior Research Fellow at the Centre, says “there needs to be a greater policy focus on ensuring that all families have the conditions they need to raise their children as they (and we) would wish.”
Dr Moore highlights a variety of conditions that influence children’s health and development, some of these include:
- social factors such as positive networks and inclusive communities
- environmental factors like clean air, healthy housing and access to green spaces
- material factors such as income and food security.