Research has shown that the benefits of early intervention towards mental health care are significant factors in increasing the speed of recovery from acute and chronic illnesses and that preventative measures can reduce the impact and severity of mental health symptoms.
It has been suggested that nearly half of all mental disorders start in children before age 14, and mental health problems in children differ from those present in adults.
Children are not as adept at expressing emotions as adults, and this lack of communication may manifest as behavioural issues, relationship issues and destructive traits. These children are then mistakenly labelled as naughty or troublemakers while the underlying causes of their behaviour go unchecked, thus allowing the possible mental illness to flourish unchallenged.
How can you recognise a mental health problem?
One in five Australian adults will experience a mental health disorder, and learning the signs that could indicate a friend or family member is struggling is essential to implementing an early intervention.
Often it’s not a single change but a combination of behaviours that provides early warnings of mental illness.
The following cluster of symptoms are not concrete diagnosis tools but can be interpreted as early warnings of a potential mental health problem:
- Feeling anxious or worried.
- Feeling depressed or unhappy.
- Emotional outbursts.
- Sleep problems.
- Weight or appetite changes.
- Being quiet or withdrawn.
- Substance abuse.
- Feeling guilty or worthless.
- Changes in behaviour or feelings.
Towards the development of integrated and multidisciplinary services for the young population
Changes in the mental health service in recent years have seen important steps towards a more integrated style of care and collaboration between health workers from multiple disciplines. For example, the early intervention model initially developed for people suffering from acute psychological issues has been expanded to include mood disorders, personality disorders, and eating disorders.
Consequently, it is becoming increasingly possible to offer comprehensive mental health services to young adults younger than 25 and provide support for their families during acute and chronic illnesses.
What is the difference between prevention and early intervention?
Preventative and early intervention measures exist along a spectrum of possible mental illness treatments, including mental health promotion therapy, continuing care and rehabilitation. Prevention refers to programs and services designed to build protective factors and prevent mental health disorders from occurring in the first place.
Early intervention refers to activities, programs and services designed to support people who show signs of needing support or vulnerabilities that may escalate into mental health problems. Early interventions provide people with resources and skills designed to interrupt the growth of emerging problems and encourage positive mental health.
Mental health issues can be prevented by intervening early in their development if the problem is not resolved. This kind of intervention aims to find or adapt factors or conditions associated with mental health difficulties.
What is the purpose of youth mental health interventions?
Children who are supported in their mental health and well-being early in childhood have a strong foundation for developing the skills, values and behaviours they need to experience positive physical and mental health as an adult.
Poor mental health in early childhood has been linked to physical and mental illnesses in adulthood, and yet children under the age of 12 experiencing mental health problems have the lowest access to and use of specialist mental health services globally.
So the target of youth mental health interventions is to prevent the development of mental illnesses in childhood and adolescence into more serious, diagnosable illnesses in adulthood.
The need for implementing prevention and early intervention in youth mental health
Prevention and early intervention in the life of a vulnerable child are vital elements in improving a child’s mental health in the long run. It prevents the development of mental illnesses as the child grows into adolescence and adulthood.
Historically, mental health services were traditionally oriented to providing medical-based interventions for adults experiencing major crisis events. Research now shows that early intervention is the preferable mode of treatment to enable a faster and more complete recovery.
Aspects of this early intervention approach can be seen today throughout society in the following activities:
- Normalising the conversation around mental health.
- Encouraging young people to talk about their mental health.
- Combating the negative impact that social media has on mental health.
Half of all mental disorders start by 14 years and are usually preceded by non-specific psychosocial disturbances potentially evolving in any major mental disorder and accounting for 45% of the global burden of disease across the 0–25 age span.
While some action has been taken to promote the implementation of services dedicated to young people, mental health needs during this critical period of development are still largely unmet. This urgently requires greater preventive strategies in a youth-focused multidisciplinary framework that might interrupt the progress of mental health decline earlier.
How do prevention and early intervention support families?
Responding early in the course of a mental health disorder or illness, and early in an acute episode of illness, to reduce the risk of escalation of the illness has a substantial positive impact on the pattern of illness progression and minimises the harmful impact on individuals, their families and the wider community.
Protective factors such as supportive and caring parents, consistent parenting style, good social skills, adequate nutrition, positive school climate, opportunities for success and recognition at school, good physical health, strong cultural identity and economic security improve resistance to risk factors and the development of mental illness.
Conversely, risk factors such as poor health in infancy, low parental involvement in a child’s activities, family violence and disharmony, parental substance misuse, bullying, school failure, problematic school transitions, physical, sexual and emotional abuse, poverty/economic insecurity and a lack of support services are associated with increased probability of onset, greater severity and longer duration of mental health problems.
The presence and actions of parents and extended families can help ensure a healthy infant stays healthy as it grows towards adulthood. In some cases, mental health factors affect children and parents due to genetic and environmental issues.
It is important for children to address their weaknesses in their social life, which also helps in emotional health and happiness. Developing a strong relationship with parents and a strong relationship within families and communities are important factors in helping children develop mental and physical health.
Importance of Recording Mental Health Histories
Maintaining accurate personal health records is useful for promoting prevention strategies that significantly affect the individual’s health. Screening and prevention strategies can improve health pathways by addressing the problem early in life and preventing the onset.
This allows for individualised healthcare in that the interventions can be tailored to suit the specific demographic and health risk factors as well as triggering interventions specific to disease stages.
Suppose an individual has their mental health history on record. In that case, this allows healthcare practitioners to intervene earlier when additional mental health problems arise, thus allowing for more accurate diagnosis and earlier intervention.
Towards a clinical staging model to intercept a wider at-risk youth population
Recognising that current frameworks for classification and treatment in psychiatry are inadequate, particularly for use in young people and early intervention services, transdiagnostic clinical staging models have gained prominence in recent years. These models aim to identify where individuals lie along a continuum of illness, improve treatment selection, and better understand illness progression.
This is particularly relevant to help‐seeking and mental health needs experienced during the peak age range of onset, namely the adolescent and young adult developmental periods (i.e., ages 12‐25 years).
Early intervention in children and young people
Early diagnosis is crucial in young adults who experience profound long-term effects of mental illness. Early intervention may involve identifying infants or children at risk of developing mental illnesses or severe behavioural problems. For adolescents, mental illnesses can lead to low academic performance and long-term mental health outcomes, impacting family, friends and others in the community.
Currently, researchers are gathering data on early-life risk factors for detecting and preventing mental illness. As more information is gathered, the awareness of risk factors will grow, thus encouraging even earlier diagnosis and intervention.
The importance of early intervention in mental health
Early intervention in mental health issues involves providing expert support and treatment to individuals suffering from early symptoms of a mental disorder. Such intervention has been shown to improve health outcomes for the individual, substantially reducing the cost of mental illness treatment in the community.
Early intervention refers to recognising the warning signs of a mental health illness and intervening before it escalates in severity. Such early interventions allow the individual to receive assistance from a counsellor or medical professional, which then opens the door for faster and more complete recovery from most types of illness.
Early intervention can also prevent the individual from experiencing more serious symptoms and may reduce or eliminate the impact that mental illness might have on all aspects of the individual’s life, including work, relationships, and family. Early intervention may also help to minimise the progression of other disorders, such as alcohol and drug use as coping methods.
Early intervention strategies are based on a foundation of education that is intended to build resilience, self-awareness and personal confidence.
What are the benefits of early intervention for depression?
Depression and anxiety are the leading global causes of disease burden in young people and considerable illness burdens across the lifespan. These conditions conservatively cost Australians $12 billion every year, with suicide costing an extra $1.7 billion annually.
Suicide rates among young people are at their highest in more than a decade, accounting for more than one-third of all deaths in Australians aged 15–44. Effective prevention and early intervention can significantly reduce the disease burden on society by halting, delaying and interrupting the onset and progression of depression and anxiety.
Advantages of prevention and early intervention in children and youth with mental health distress
Prevention and early intervention are recognised key elements for minimising the impact of any potentially serious health condition. While significant changes have been made, the bulk of mental health resources is allocated to the treatment of adult mental illnesses in acute presentations.
Mental health is a key component of the individual’s ability to function well in their personal and social life as well as to develop strategies to cope with all aspects of life. Early childhood years are a critical period with respect to the increased sensitivity and vulnerability of early brain development, which may have long-lasting effects on the academic, social, emotional and behavioural achievements reached in adulthood.
Most mental disorders peak in incidence from childhood to young adulthood. One in five young adults experience mental health problems before 25, and 50% are symptomatic by age 14.
Among the population under 25 experiencing mental health problems, particularly anxiety and depression, many use alcohol and illicit drugs to cope with their symptoms, which usually exacerbates the illnesses.
And it has been noted that following symptom onset, people 0 – 25 yrs experience the greatest delay in receiving initial treatment for their mental health problems, often as a result of the stigma of asking for help.
Selective prevention interventions target at-risk populations: an example is school-based programs specifically targeting young people at risk of depression. This could provide an opportunity to teach self-awareness strategies and techniques to address physical, social, emotional and behavioural issues before they escalate.
Universal prevention interventions aim to improve a population’s overall mental health: an example would be programs aimed at building connectedness and a sense of belonging in school students, reducing feelings of isolation and encouraging connection and conversation.
Values and principles of early intervention in mental health
There are a number of values and principles that guide the provision of mental health services. Clients receiving mental health services should be:
- Provided assessment and treatment in the least restrictive way possible.
- Provided with services to bring about the best possible therapeutic outcomes and promote recovery and full participation in community life.
- Involved in all decisions about their assessment, treatment and recovery and be supported to make or participate in those decisions.
- Able to have their rights, dignity and autonomy respected.
- Able to have their medical and other health needs attended to.
- People receiving mental health services should recognise their individual needs, including culture, language, age, disability, religion, gender, or sexuality.
- Aboriginal persons receiving mental health services should have their distinct culture and identity respected.
- Children and young persons receiving mental health services should be able to receive services separately from adults whenever possible.
- Children, young persons and other dependents of persons receiving mental health services should have their needs, well-being and safety respected.
- Carers should be involved in decisions about assessment, treatment and recovery whenever this is possible.
- Carers for persons receiving mental health services should have their role recognised, respected and supported.
How can you qualify to work in Mental Health?
If prevention and early intervention are the primary methods of addressing the mental health crisis that is facing the Australian population, then further expansion of services and additional staff will be required in the coming months and years.
Interested in playing an integral role in Australia’s Mental Health sector? Consider taking the first step by studying for a Mental Health qualification. The CHC53315 Diploma of Mental Health qualification will equip students with specialised knowledge and skills to lead and deliver support services to people experiencing mental health struggles.