OPINION: Youth report call to action

NATIONAL Children’s Commissioner Megan Mitchell has officially launched her second Children’s Rights Report as commissioner.

This year the report had a sobering but important focus on the human rights of children and young people up to 18 engaging in intentional self-harm. 

This 2014 report was developed from 140 submissions, including two from our organisation, a series of expert roundtables and the collection of published and unpublished self-injury data.

Of immediate concern is research suggesting that while suicide rates remain relatively low and are generally tracking down, the number of children and young people who are engaging in intentional self-harm could be growing. 

Also of concern is the disparity we see between indigenous children, where the risk is five times higher than non-indigenous children.

The primary finding from the Commissioner’s examination is that too much continues to be unknown and this is hampering our collective efforts to predict and prevent injury and harm. 

What we do know, however, is the deep pain and distress that families, teachers, community workers and other young people can experience when a child or a young person is struggling with their mental health and well-being.

 Perhaps one of the most confronting of these situations is when a child or young person is intentionally hurting themselves.  This work adds impetus for action. 

A critical first step is to draw together the various projects, research and data to create a cohesive picture of what we know, but also where the gaps in our knowledge are, and what we might most meaningfully do to progress supporting children, young people and families. 

In releasing the report, Megan Mitchell has called for a national research agenda to underpin policies and interventions for children and young people.

As a start, we need to urgently define and better understand the differences between self-injury without suicidal intent and suicidal behaviour, and embed that knowledge across our collective work. We must also better understand not only the risk factors, but also the protective factors that can be targeted for immediate and future well-being outcomes.

We must also ensure that the research agenda meaningfully engages children and young people themselves as well as sectors outside of mental health that are most likely to engage with, and support, children and young people. But, to be most effective, that research agenda needs to link with a broader research plan looking at self-injury and suicide across the lifespan. We must ensure that policy and administrative division of children, young people and adults does not make us forget the interconnected nature of development and growth. 

Perhaps one of the most acute observations made by Commissioner Mitchell is the way  in which the ‘‘youth’’ agenda needs to meaningfully include children as well as young people. Research, policy and debate needs to be mindful that a youth focus can unintentionally draw attention away from the needs and interest of children under the age of 12. 

In releasing the report to Parliament, Commissioner Mitchell said that “we need to review the timing of interventions and support, and work with children much earlier to build resilience and encourage help seeking”.

Where children are concerned, the most effective settings for intervention are likely to be in the home, in their educational settings and broader health services, rather than mental health services per se. Looking to the social determinants of health will also be a good start – ensuring children have somewhere safe and secure to live, that they grow up protected from violence and abuse and that they have a voice.  

It is not enough to think only about the treatment system. Instead, we must make prevention a priority. We need a vision that includes fewer children and young people experiencing psychological distress and a plan to achieve it.

The Commissioner’s report as a call to action is clear – we need to know and understand more; we need to act in support of children, young people and families more; we need to involve children and young people more in finding effective solutions; and we need to improve our collective effort and monitoring of that effort. 

There is no more important time in life to focus our attention, and no more important time than right now. The Children’s Rights Report 2014 is available from humanrights.gov.au.

For support,  you can contact:

Kids Helpline 1800551800 kidshelp.com.au

Lifeline 131114 lifeline.org.au

headspace 1800650890 headspace.org.au 

Dr Gavin Hazel is program manager for child, youth and  well-being at the Hunter Institute of Mental Health