Are we doing enough to support parents' mental health?

Support for parents' wellbeing is vital for raising happy kids.
Support for parents' wellbeing is vital for raising happy kids. Photo: Getty

Society is so often focused on raising happy children, but what about the happiness of the parents? Are we doing enough to look after the emotional and mental health of parents? With the government cuts to the Better Access initiative and the National Perinatal Depression initiative in 2013, many individuals are being left untreated for mental illnesses. Parents, children, families are suffering. Rather than just focusing on raising happy children, maybe we should shift a bit of the focus to raising happy parents too.

The significant role of parents

According to clinical psychologist, Sally-Anne McCormack, raising happy children is all about modelling what it means to be 'happy'. “We are the biggest influence on our children. We are the main role model for our children when they are young,” she says.

“We show them how to be happy through the way that we talk to our spouse, the way we talk to them, our enjoyment in day-to-day life.”

But in order to model the appropriate behaviour, it's absolutely vital that we look after our own emotional and mental health, says McCormack.

Psychologist and director of Parent WellBeing, Jodie Benveniste, agrees.

Benveniste explains, “When parents are emotionally healthy and strong they are much better able to manage the challenges of raising kids, feel more confident in the choices they make for their family, and are better able to teach their children social and emotional skills too.”

The role of the government

Fortunately, with the Better Access initiative, many more Australians have been in a better position to look after their emotional and mental health.

Since being introduced in 2006, The 'Better Access to Psychiatrists, Psychologists and General Practitioners through the Medicare Benefits Schedule (Better Access)' initiative has helped those with a clinically-diagnosed mental disorder through evidence-based treatment. It has provided the public better access to mental health practitioners through Medicare, with a limit of 18 sessions.

Due to this federal government funding, Australia is now a world leader in helping those with mental health issues; the treatment rate rising faster than in any other country, from 37 per cent in 2006/7 to 46 per cent 2009/10.

Cuts to the Better Access initiative

But in 2011, the previous Government announced cuts to psychological treatment in the Medicare system. Since January 2013, the visits have been reduced to just 10 sessions.

How has this affected those living with a mental illness? How has this affected the parents?

Dr. Ben Mullings, spokesperson for the 'Alliance for Better Access' pressure group, has been speaking up about these cuts since the group formed in May 2011.

As a practising psychologist as well as a parent, Dr. Mullings knows that 10 sessions are simply not enough. Psychology research has consistently led to the recommendation that at least 15 to 20 sessions of psychological treatment should be offered to those with common mental health disorders, like depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder.

“I have worked as a psychologist delivering therapy for many years and knew that these cuts would mean that many people wouldn't get enough therapy to recover,” says Dr. Mullings.

“When people learn of the 10 session limit, there are many who pull out of therapy early. Some simply can't afford the therapy they need. The tragedy of this issue is that limiting therapy at 10 visits hurts those who are the most vulnerable.”

Why the Better Access initiative cuts are hurting the parents

Dr. Mullings says that the cuts would be hitting families very hard.

“In my work as a psychologist I see a lot of parents, who are either struggling to manage their own emotional well-being or are trying to manage family issues around having a son or daughter who is struggling with a mental health issue,” says Dr. Mullings.

“When a person is feeling depressed, those complex emotions affect the way they interact with other people, especially those who are nearest and dearest to them.”

Funding for the National Perinatal Depression initiative under review

Funding has ceased in other mental health areas too. During the time of pregnancy up until the first year after childbirth, is when perinatal depression and anxiety can strike as many as one in seven new mothers in Australia.

Until June last year, state and federal governments funded the $85 million, five-year program. And it's been a tremendous success. The program saw to it that tens of thousands of new mums and dads were screened for depression and anxiety, and medical professionals had financial assistance with treatment and education.

However, the government has been undecided about the future of this initiative.

Recent estimates show the cost of letting perinatal anxiety and depression go untreated is over $500 million each year for Australia's economy, but the price that our society is paying goes beyond just these figures.

Dr. Mullings says, “Funding cuts to programs like these are false economy. Just look at the funding we are talking about: $85 million across 5 years, when the cost of letting these conditions go untreated is over $500 million.”

“Thousands of women experience perinatal depression and anxiety, not through any fault of their own, but simply out of the biological reality of having a baby and adjusting to all of the changes that take place.”

“We need to think about what it is like for a husband to see his wife deteriorate, or vice versa. We really need to think about what it is like for a little kid to see their parents fall apart, because they aren't getting the help they need.”

Raising happy parents

With the prevalance of violence, crime, self-harm, anti-social behaviour, trauma and suicide, we need to be treating the causes rather than just the symptoms of these behaviours.

By ensuring that our parents are well looked after, they will be in a better position to raise the adults of tomorrow.

McCormack says, “The primary person in a child and adolescent's life is generally the parents, and we're not doing enough for the parents.”

“If the government put more money into mental health, it would not only benefit the current adult population but also influence the family.”

Benveniste concurs: “As a society, I don't think we value childhood and families and the very important role of raising children, as much as we should.”

“Raising happy and healthy kids should be a community objective. We can all benefit from supporting each other and playing a positive role in raising the next generation.”

“And the government can play its role by backing policies and programs that help reach this objective.” 

Thuy Yau is a freelance writer and mother of three. She is incredibly passionate about emotional and mental health. You can follow Thuy on Twitter, join her on Facebook, or read her personal development blog at Inside a Mother's Mind.