Urgency needed over mental health care

22 Mar, 2024
Urgency needed over mental health care
Dr Amy Kercher, Senior Lecturer in Psychology and Neuroscience at AUT

Many parents in Aotearoa are having difficulty finding treatment for their children suffering from mental health problems, according to a new journal article.

The piece, in the Australian and New Zealand Journal of Public Health, wasled by Dr Amy Kercher, Senior Lecturer in Psychology and Neuroscience at AUT, and found that 95 percent of participating parents reported issues.

The work builds on previous research that shows psychologists in Aotearoa are stressed and at risk of burnout, while facing unprecedented demand.

Dr Kercher, who was part of the team that worked with musician Benee on reducing anxiety in youth by using music says that waitlists and costs are the major barriers to accessing psychological support.

“We need more psychologists and more early intervention services to support whānau and children, and prevent worsening problems into adolescence,” she says.

Dr Kercher says they surveyed 400 parents of primary-aged children all over Aotearoa in 2023, post COVID-pandemic, through community recruitment. The results showed more than 30 percent of their children aged 5-11 were in the clinical range for emotional, behavioural or attentional problems (ADHD).

“This is dramatically higher than the MoH estimates of 8-10 percent,” Dr Kercher says.

“Although these rates seem unusually high, this was not just parent bias. More than 30 percent of this group had been referred for treatment by a doctor, supporting the parents’ concerns.”

The results showed almost all parents had difficulty seeking assessment and treatment for their children with waitlists (53 percent) and cost (43 percent) causing access issues. Further, 36 percent of parents were not sure who to contact for help for their children.

The results post-treatment were also of concern, with only half of those receiving treatment (51 percent) reported an improvement, with 23 percent having problems getting enough support, with cost and travel again causing issues, along with the limited number of sessions available.

The results come at a time when psychologists in Aotearoa are stressed and at risk of burnout, according to multiple studies (Blayney & Kercher, 2023; Kercher & Gossage 2024; Kercher, Rahman & Pedersen, in press).

During the pandemic, psychologists reported higher rates of stress and depression symptoms than community norms amid drastically increased workloads and demand, with more severe presentations, more stress and no more resources.

“Their stress was comparable with frontline health professionals during the pandemic,” says Dr Kercher.

“Higher rates of stress, depression and risk of burnout were again reported after the COVID-19 lockdowns ended, associated with stress related to the pandemic, and also with increased workplace and clinical demands.”

“We urgently need more psychologists, and particularly more evidence-based services for young children, to intervene early and prevent worsening problems into adolescence. We have several projects underway and hope to receive funding soon to develop a cost-effective, accessible, and effective intervention for tamariki.”

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