Pandemic highlights urgent need for Medicare rebate change to help parents of children struggling with mental health

Leading child protection expert Daryl Higgins has joined a list of prominent health academics calling for an urgent Medicare rebate change to cover families seeking parenting advice to protect their children’s mental health.

“Currently Medicare rebates are only available for services to be provided to the person with the health problem,” Professor Higgins, director of the Institute of Child Protection Studies at the Australian Catholic University said.

“This means, that if children are struggling with mental health problems, services must be provided directly to the child.”

Parents are crucial to child mental health outcomes, yet such programs are excluded from Medicare benefit schemes, locking many families out of such supports, he said.

In an open letter to the Federal Government on behalf of the Parenting and Family Research Alliance, Professor Higgins joined Professor John Toumbourou, chair in health psychology at Deakin University and Professor Jan Nicholson, director of the Judith Lumley Centre at La Trobe University to point to the glaring gap.

“We call on the federal government to enable effective parenting programs to be delivered by psychologists and other authorised practitioners as part of the Better Access to Mental Health Care Initiative,” they said.

Professor Higgins said the Commonwealth Mental Health and Wellbeing Pandemic Response Plan recommended children in mental distress, and their families, have access to programs that meet their needs.

“This makes sense, given the increasing number of families experiencing unemployment, economic stress, and social isolation due to the pandemic,” he said.

“The loss of freedom, not being able to connect with friends and loved ones and home schooling is putting enormous pressure on families and they need extra support with mental health, well-being and suicide prevention.”

The move comes as the State Government announced $60 million in mental health funding for people struggling to cope in the pandemic, after it was revealed there has been a sharp increase in Victorians presenting to hospital due to mental illness and self-harm. The biggest rise was seen among young people, with a 33 per cent increase in hospital admissions for self-harm compared to the same time last year.

Professor Higgins said a recent review of Medicare rebates recommended they be extended to fund parent interventions, which is supported by the Australian Psychological Society.

Australia is a world leader in developing and disseminating parenting programs that have been carefully evaluated and shown to be effective in improving the mental health of children and parents.

However, research shows less than 10 per cent of families in Australian schools have access to evidence-based parenting programs.

 

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