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    James Merlino.

Student wellbeing in the spotlight

By Jessica Grimble 

A new program aims to boost Wimmera teachers’ capacity to support the mental health of their students.

The State Government will invest $200-million to expand its ‘Mental Health in Primary Schools program’ to 1800 government and low-fee, non-government primary schools. 

Every school will employ a mental health and wellbeing leader to support individual students, help teachers better identify and support at-risk students, and build relationships and referral pathways to mental health services. The program would have a presence, regardless of the size of a school. 

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Implementation starts in term three and the rollout will occur between 2023 and 2026.

Ararat, Ararat North and Ararat West and Stawell, St Patrick’s and Stawell West primary schools were among 100 schools – 44 in regional areas – to pilot the program in partnership with the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute and Melbourne University. Schools have reported improved mental health and wellbeing, and improved social, academic and vocational outcomes. 

Mental Health and Education Minister James Merlino said the program would increase the capacity and confidence of teachers in supporting children with mental health needs – with the support of psychiatrists, psychologists, counsellors and other professionals. 

He said half of all cases of anxiety, mood, impulse control and substance-use disorders manifest by the age of 14. 

“We are trying to address the root causes through a variety of ways,” he said. 

“Schools are our best way to engage with kids and their families and if you can engage early, you can work out what it is that is impacting on the child’s mental health and make that intervention.” 

The program will roll-out to about 400 schools each year – about one-third of them in rural and regional areas. 

Mr Merlino said the program was in response to the Royal Commission into Victoria’s Mental Health System.

“We already know that the mental health system was broken – the Royal Commission exposed that starkly,” he said. 

“There are tens of thousands of young people and adults who could not get the service they needed in their local community. 

“On top of that, we have two-and-a-half years of a global pandemic and we know that has had a mental health and wellbeing impact on children and young people.” 

Mr Merlino said access to the mental health workforce remained a challenge. More than 2500 roles were created since the Royal Commission’s final report was handed down. 

Referral process

Ararat West Primary School mental health and wellbeing co-ordinator Josh McDougall said developing a wellbeing team and supporting teachers to identify children experiencing mental health or wellbeing concerns – and the internal and external referral processes available – was a critical first step in his experience with the pilot program.

“In the first year, it was a lot about us developing our understanding and auditing what we and other schools are doing to support mental health and wellbeing,” Mr McDougall said. 

“It’s definitely something, as a school, we have really valued and it’s been exciting to support other schools who are starting the process.” 

He said the school employed a behavioural therapist and a psychologist visited identified students weekly. 

Information and resources are shared to families via the school newsletter. 

“Through this program, we can use these resources as best we can to support students as well as families – and link to other supports,” Mr McDougall said. 

The announcement comes as the government introduces its new Mental Health and Wellbeing Act. The Bill, which will replace the Mental Health Act 2014, will set out rights-based objectives and principles for responsive services that ensure people seeking care are involved in decisions about their treatment. 

It includes a statement of recognition and acknowledgement of the treaty process. 

Lived experience will be a central pillar of the new system and embedded in new entities, including regional Mental Health and Wellbeing Boards and a new Mental Health and Wellbeing Commission. 

The Victorian Budget 2022-23 invested $1.3 billion in mental health and wellbeing, building on last year’s record investment of $3.8 billion. 

The entire June 22, 2022 edition of The Weekly Advertiser is available online. READ IT HERE!