Australia Survey finds alarming rise in severe emotional distress among WA school students
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The largest study of school student wellbeing ever undertaken in Western Australia has found a concerning number of adolescents are experiencing emotional distress.
The survey of more than 24,000 students across 79 public schools found around 40 per cent of secondary students were experiencing moderate to high levels of emotional distress.
That was around three times higher than a comparable benchmark of 14 per cent found in a large national study conducted in 2014.
The study also found a much higher proportion of female students — 45 per cent — were experiencing emotional distress, compared with 28 per cent of male students surveyed.
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It found the data reflected an increase in adolescent mental health difficulties during the last decade, "which may have been further exacerbated by COVID-19", although the authors said this link required further investigation.
Approximately one-half of the student respondents reported that COVID-19 had impacted them negatively, with the other half reporting little or no impact on their daily lives.
Severe distress 'tripled in six years'
The results were part of the DETECT Schools Study, which wasby testing staff and students.
The study — a partnership between the Telethon Kids Institute and the WA Departments of Health and Education — also used surveys to examine the impact of the pandemic on student, staff and parent wellbeing.
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Telethon Kids Institute Director Jonathan Carapetis said the results of the surveys — conducted in June/July and October last year — were concerning.
"In 2014, we did a national survey and we found that 14 per cent of teenagers had this level of quite severe emotional distress — that has tripled in six years," he said.
"That is pretty significant. We would not expect that sort of number of kids to be at the quite extreme level of the spectrum.
"I think we are seeing something very significant — that is, a trajectory in the wrong direction for young people's emotional distress."
Professor Carapetis said the situation was already bad before COVID-19.
"The level of young people's distress and mental health problems was already on the rise," he said.
"We suspect that COVID has had an additional impact, and we will only be able to track that over time to understand to what degree.
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"This is not anything particularly surprising, but it is incredibly important we take note of it and we deal with it."
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The study used the Child Health Utility Index (CHU9D) scale — a scoring method that, according to the report, has been used and validated extensively in other child wellbeing studies in Australia.
The short survey asked students in years seven to 12 about how they were feeling on the day, including if they were worried, sad, in pain, tired, annoyed or having difficulties with schoolwork, sleep, and daily routine or activities.
The study could not conclude whether the elevated levels of emotional distress were a result of the pandemic, or a broader societal shift in adolescent wellbeing.
The study found rates of moderate or severe emotional distress were higher among children who reported COVID-19 had a large negative impact on their lives — 55 per cent in June/July, and 61 per cent in October.
This compared to those who reported the pandemic had little or no impact — 33 per cent in June/July, and 36 per cent in October.
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The study referenced the overall increase in mental health difficulties for young people over the last decade, which "may have been further exacerbated by COVID-19".
"Including reports of a 50 per cent increase from 2015 to 2019 in the number of children aged 0-17 years referred to the WA Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services," it stated.
"Further, a 104 per cent increase during 2020 in children with anorexia nervosa requiring admission to the hospital, compared to the previous three years supports the notion that the COVID-19 pandemic has possibly had an acute negative impact on the wellbeing of young people.
"[The data] highlights a requirement for more systematic collection and monitoring of student wellbeing to better understand and track changes in student wellbeing over time."
Calls for data to guide policy decisions
The report suggested regular collection of wellbeing data would help to identify which areas, schools or students were at highest risk "such as female students, older students and those living in metropolitan areas".
"These data could also be used to deliver equity by allocating limited resources with more precision to support the types of response plans and interventions that may be the most appropriate based on students' strengths and needs, and to assess the effectiveness and return on investment of these policies and practices over time," it said.
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"[The data] could also guide cross-government resource prioritisation, decision-making and action to reduce the high rates of mental health problems in our communities."
Commissioner for Children and Young People WA, Colin Pettit, said the findings were not surprising.
"We had done a survey back in 2019, prior to COVID being introduced into the world, and we found growing trends consistent with this report," he said.
"Some of it can be [attributed] to COVID, but we are seeing trends of more need in that space.
"I would like them to use the data to invest in schools in a way that we have not done in the past."
Three-quarters of staff in the 79 primary and secondary public schools who completed the DETECT psychosocial wellbeing surveys also reported elevated stress levels.
In June/July 2020, half of the staff respondents reported the pandemic negatively impacted the wellbeing of their students, but this decreased to one-third by October.
Many teaching staff indicated they would like additional support to help their students cope with the pandemic.
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Matt Jarman, the senior Vice-President at the State School Teachers' Union of WA, said the report's findings were not surprising.
"COVID has really brought to everybody's attention that nature of the problems that we have, that have been growing over several years in our classrooms and our schools," he said.
"Stress levels of teachers are very high. The complexities of dealing with mental health has really increased workload.
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"I think this data needs to be correlated to the paediatric mental health waiting lists that we see around Perth."
Opposition health spokeswoman Libby Mettam said the DETECT report provided compelling and concerning statistics.
"It underlines the importance of investing in Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services, which only make up 6.5 per cent of the mental health budget," Ms Mettam said.
"We need to see some urgent intervention and investment in this area."
In a statement, a spokeswoman for the state government said the results showed school staff had done a remarkable job responding to the needs of students during the pandemic.
"Teachers were attuned to the needs of their students, with almost half indicating that they believed the pandemic had negatively impacted students' wellbeing," the spokeswoman said.
"It was a very difficult time for everyone so, while concerning, these results do not come as a surprise.
"The Department of Education will continue to work with the Department of Health and the Mental Health Commission, to develop strategies to ensure students still experiencing these effects get the support they need."
The spokeswoman said the state government's $42 million election commitment for more than 100 additional psychologists in schools over the next four years would further support the wellbeing of students.
Across the 40 schools which participated in the COVID-19 testing, 5,903 asymptomatic students and 674 asymptomatic staff were swabbed, with no positive results returned — unsurprising given there was no community spread of the virus over the study period.
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