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EXCLUSIVE: Three-year-olds in childcare and students from preschool and kindergarten upwards will be taught about suicide awareness and mental health as part of a $53 million Mental Health in Education program to be announced by the Turnbull government today (Thursday).
More streamlined “postvention” strategies, with crisis teams deployed to schools when a suicide occurs, will also be put in place to prevent contagion suicides as childhood mental health issues soar.
While the word “suicide” won’t be used directly with three-year-olds, discussions around feelings of “not wanting to be here” or “wanting to die” could be addressed in the right context.
Specific “suicide” discussion could occur with kids as young as eight, according to experts. Health Minister Greg Hunt will today announce teachers from childcare educators right through to Year 12 will be provided additional mental health and suicide training in their university degrees or VET education.
Those already teaching will undergo additional online and face-to-face training to better improve the discussion with children around the issue.
The program will be run by Beyond Blue in partnership with Early Childhood Australia and Headspace.
It will begin early next year with two-thirds of all schools to be involved — 2000 Early Learning Services and 6000 schools — by June 2019.
Beyond Blue CEO Georgie Harman said teachers would then employ a range of strategies to teach young people about mental health and suicide.
This could include lesson plans or general discussions around anxiety and emotions.
She said the discussion with three-year-olds would occur in a different capacity to those with teenagers.
But suicide awareness in the very youngest of students would not be off the table if appropriate.
“We will frame that early childhood educator support and training in a very different way to the support for primary school and secondary school,” Ms Harman said.
“The conversation with a three or four or five-year-old is not going to happen in the same way that it will happen with a 17-year-old.”
Early Childhood Australia CEO Sam Page said helping to develop resilient children who were aware of their emotions and mental health could have a real impact in preventing them from being at risk of suicide later on in life.
“If we teach all children how to name their emotions, how to feel sad and how to recover from that … then we are more likely to have reduced instances of depression and that in turn will reduce the number of children trying to suicide,” Ms Page said.
Last year youth suicide reached a 10-year high, with eight children and teens committing suicide every week in Australia — a 32 per cent increase on 2006.
According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics between 2011 and 2015 a total of 89 children aged 5 to 14 years committed suicide.
Former Australian of The Year and Headspace founder Patrick McGorry said it was appropriate to discuss mental health with kids from the beginning of their learning.
“We know 7 per cent of all primary school children have mental health issues,” Professor McGorry who now works as the Executive Director of Orygen Youth Health said.
However, he said using the term suicide shouldn’t come until late primary school.
“We first really see suicidal thinking in late primary school around the age of eight or 10,” Professor McGorry said.
“The focus for suicide prevention should be in late primary school.”
Louise Davis, clinical practice manager at Kids Helpline, said the service had received calls from kids as young as eight contemplating suicide.
She said there were age groups that were “too young” to discuss suicide with, but that the concept of sharing your feelings and being open about seeing help needed to be encouraged early.
“We don’t want to scare young children, but certainly we want the message for them to be that if they are feeling anything — whether it is not wanting to be here or sadness that they can discuss that.”
Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt said mental health issues impacted even the youngest among us.
“People of all ages can be affected by mental health — either directly themselves or because someone close to them might be suffering. It can impact even our youngest Australians,” Mr Hunt told News Corp Australia.
“It’s important schools have the resources and training to deal with mental health issues, so they can support individuals impacted and also the broader community.
“This might include training teachers on how to support a student going through a difficult time, or what to say to a student who has lost a parent.”
In a further boost to improving mental health in children Mr Hunt will also today announce an additional $19 million to assist GPs, nurses and other health professionals who work with children to better identify, support and refer children at risk of mental health difficulties.
Mr Hunt will make both announcements alongside Beyond Blue patron and former Victorian Premier Jeff Kennett in Melbourne.