Call for more kids’ mental health support after coronavirus and bushfires

09 May 2021

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AUSTRALIA – When bushfires were burning on all sides of the small Victorian town of Buchan in 2019, the local children and their families were either sheltering under sprinklers at farms or watching the fire surround them from the local oval.

The impact of this traumatic event on children’s mental health is something the town is still coping with, says Buchan Uniting Early Learning Centre kindergarten teacher Rocio Levings.

“It was very scary for them,” she said.

“I think that some children shut off from their feelings and it wasn’t just the trauma of the bushfires then with COVID afterwards; families are still stressed.”

Last year the early learning centre took part in Save the Children’s Journey of Hope program, which assists children recovering from disaster-related trauma including the Black Summer bushfires, floods and the coronavirus pandemic.

“It helped them so much,” Ms Levings said.

“They started to think about feelings in a different way. Usually the kids just feel it, they can’t make sense of it or relate it to anything.

“Having programs in place that allow children to talk about feelings in a playfully delivered way and for them to be able to find out how they can help each other and find strategies for that – that kind of stuff is so essentially important, for all kids.”

Journey of Hope stands to lose funding in June and executive director of Save the Children’s Australian Services Matt Gardiner said the organisation had made a federal budget submission urging the government to fund evidence-based, psychosocial support programs to benefit all students’ social and emotional wellbeing and resilience.

“This is about protecting children before it becomes trauma. If distress is left untreated it has a terrible impact,” he said.

“So far the federal government really hasn’t invested in the social and emotional wellbeing and recovery of children. Emotional and social recovery is as important as physical infrastructure.“

Mr Gardiner said a child receiving support shouldn’t have to depend on the skills and resources of their individual school.

“Every child should have the same access and the same investment in their mental health,” he said.

Rebecca Thomas, whose company Shine Bright Psychology works in schools across greater Melbourne, said she had experienced a spike in demand from schools asking for post-COVID mental health programs.

“For some students it’s a need to build up their social skills again, and then for students with pre-existing issues, COVID really exacerbated those,” she said.

“We’re getting a lot of requests from schools to run groups but not all schools have the resources to do that.”

Ms Thomas said more attention and funding needed to be directed at improving youth mental health after traumatic events.

“Getting in early is critical; if we can just set kids up with the right support and the right skills,” she said.

“Teaching mental health skills should be standard from a young age. We can definitely be doing more and doing better.”

If you or anyone you know needs support, call Beyond Blue on 1300 22 436.

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