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Warning signs: What child development can tell us about mental health in later life

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Combining data from multiple agencies has helped researchers identify children at risk of developing mental disorders.

Warning signs for mental health problems can be seen in kids before the age of five, research suggests.

Using data from health, education, justice and child protection agencies, scientists have been able to identify risk factors for mental disorders beginning in pregnancy and a child’s early years.

It’s helping to pinpoint stages where early intervention could improve a person’s life.

University of New South Wales mental health researcher Professor Melissa Green is the lead scientific investigator on the NSW Child Development Study, a long-running analysis of more than 90,000 Australian children.

She says that while mental disorders often crystallise in adolescence and early adulthood, markers can be seen much earlier.

“The signs are there,” Professor Green says. “They’re evident in a child’s functioning even at school entry.”

Professor Green says that while funding for teenage mental health services is good, we could offer services far earlier.

The data shows there are multiple opportunities to intervene, starting as early as pregnancy and birth.

“Dealing with all the agencies—each one of them feels like the finger’s being pointed at them to solve the problem of these vulnerable kids and families,” Professor Green says.

“But no agency can do it alone.”

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