Supporting Young Children

Supporting Young Children Main Image

22 November 2021

I rise to support the motion moved by the member for Macarthur and acknowledge his strong interest and advocacy for the 'first 1,000 days' framework. This framework aims to improve the physical and mental health of Australian children as well as the health and wellbeing of their parents. Children under the age of two are some of the most vulnerable in our community. The first few years of a child's life are critical to their development and wellbeing. As the member for Macarthur has said, most Australian children are safe and healthy but unfortunately this is not every child's experience, depending on where they live and their family's circumstances.

As a pharmacist of 20 years who worked in mental health, I know how important a child's wellbeing and mental health are. I also know how important it is to support the mental health and wellbeing of new parents. When we consider a child's health, we must consider where they were born, where they live and where they are growing up, and we must consider the health of their parents, including their mental health and wellbeing. According to the Productivity Commission's 2020 report into mental health, the mental health of parents has a strong influence on the wellbeing of infants and young children, including their emotional, social, physical and cognitive development. The report found there is a strong need to support parents during major life transitions such as the perinatal period. Sadly, in Australia today one in five new mums experiences perinatal depression or anxiety, and one in 10 new dads will also be affected.

On Friday I spoke to a friend of mine who shared her own experience of mental ill health during pregnancy, which led to a long hospitalisation when she was six months into her pregnancy. She told me that when she was discharged she was very grateful to be linked in with a perinatal mental health team, who checked in on her every week. She had planned a natural birth but was induced and then required an emergency caesarean. She told me that because of medicines, hormonal changes and disrupted sleep she required two months of follow-up care at two different facilities, including a stay at St John of God Burwood Hospital, which she tells me is one of the only inpatient perinatal mental health units in New South Wales. Fortunately, she had private health insurance to cover her care, and her son is two and is now thriving. But there aren't enough dedicated perinatal mental health beds in the public system to care for pregnant women and new mums. This is why early intervention is key for new parents, children and their families. While I welcome the government's recent strategy for young people's mental health and wellbeing, what we need to see is some urgency and a proper implementation plan, because we know from organisations like the Black Dog Institute that half of all lifetime mental health disorders emerge by the age of 14. We also know that the rates of psychological distress in young people jumped from one in five in 2012 to over a quarter in 2020.

According to the Productivity Commission's report, some children face a much higher risk of mental ill health from a very young age. This includes children who are exposed to trauma, children affected by entrenched disadvantage and children in the out-of-home care system. Given the large jump in the number of young people experiencing mental ill health, this is urgent. The government's announcement of a new national mental health and wellbeing strategy for children under the age of 14, which I mentioned earlier, was only recently announced. While this policy is welcome, it is overdue, it doesn't go far enough and it lacks urgency in implementation. There is an urgent need to have more support measures in place now, not just for young children but also for new and expecting parents.

There are so many ways in which we can support a child's mental health and wellbeing and their social, cognitive and emotional development. That's why I support the motion moved by the member for Macarthur and his strong advocacy, as its champion, of the First 1,000 Days framework. When I first met the now member for Macarthur—as he said, he's not a career politician, he's a career paediatrician; he's a father and a grandfather—this is what he told me: 'I don't want to end my medical career the way it started, without Medicare.' That is what the member for Macarthur said to me. It is why he is here and why he is moving motions like this in this chamber.

We need to have the best supports in place to look after the wellbeing of all children, wherever they are born, wherever they grow up, wherever they live and whatever their parents earn. It is especially important to those children and young people who grow up outside of big cities. We know the further you live outside of a big city the shorter your life will be and the worse your quality of life will be. This is true. In a wealthy country like Australia this should not happen.

We also need to help reduce the stigma around perinatal mental health and other mental health care and to offer early intervention services for new mums and dads. This will give every Australian child the best start in life.