Homeless children’s mental health services need to be “better, bigger, stronger”, says Anglicare Tasmania

media release

April 21, 2022

Tasmania requires early interventions and a restructured mental health service to respond to the needs of traumatised children, says a new report from Anglicare Tasmania.

Launched today, the research by Dr Catherine Robinson from Anglicare’s Social Action and Research Centre (SARC) highlights the experiences of children aged 10-17 who are homeless without a parent or guardian.

“The longer children are homeless, the more likely that their mental health will worsen,” said Dr Robinson. “We need to do everything in our power to reach out early to support at-risk children and families”.

Child homelessness is linked to increased risk of self-harm and dying by suicide.

“These children have often had significant trauma including abuse and neglect,” said Dr Robinson.  “Their poor mental health is likely to be obvious during primary school. But where children aren’t supported early and become homeless alone, Government can help by providing age-appropriate care, and access to an appropriate level of mental health support”.

15 young people who experienced unaccompanied child homelessness and 65 professionals from community-based and school services were interviewed for the Anglicare report.

The research showed that many at-risk children were unable to access even basic health care:

“I mean, you can’t even get a Medicare card until you’re 15, so [for] those 12-15 year olds, it’s really challenging. They often come with a real fear of services, a lot of stigma, discrimination, and multiple complex issues.  They have a limited ability to navigate services, they’ve got a lack of health literacy merely because of their age, lack of finances, lack of transport. It’s really hard for them to access a bulk-billing GP, especially if they haven’t got a Medicare card…” (Service provider)

The report recommends:

Better intervention into childhood adversity

This means having more social workers in primary schools, increased training, and flexible, mobile models of care. “Children’s early experiences of mental ill health represent a ‘red flag’ opportunity to provide additional supports,” said Dr Robinson.

A bigger focus on access to health care for children and young people with complex needs.

This means offering a suitable mental health service with significant outreach capacity (through the Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service).

“When children are unaccompanied and homeless, their mental health spirals and they face many barriers to accessing mental health care due to their young age, lack of guardian, lack of income and unstable living arrangements,” said Dr Robinson. “What’s required is a mental health service especially designed to work with unaccompanied homeless children and young people with complex needs. It should have the flexibility to take supports out to children, including in regional and rural areas.”

The report also calls for more investment in the Youth Health Fund which enables the purchase of essential health services for people aged 12-24. “More professionals need to know about the existence of this Fund and be trained in how to use it,” said Dr Robinson.

Stronger care coordination for children and young people with complex needs.

The report highlights access to complex mental health care as a crucial element of the broader care needs of unaccompanied homeless children.

“…you get into survival mode when you’re out there and you’re having to look out for yourself. You don’t have the time to sit down and think about 10 things to be grateful for every morning and that kind of thing…Without having that basis of home, then everything else just isn’t really going to fall into place”. (Viviana)

Alongside the provision of age-appropriate accommodation, the report recommends development of a care coordination service.

“Youth workers need to be able to quickly escalate matters to a multi-agency, specialist practitioner team,” said Dr Robinson.  “Collaboration and service coordination is the key to the survival and recovery of children who experience homelessness and mental ill-health alone”.

Young people who took part in the research expressed a deep longing for safety, care and mental health support for traumatised children:

“Why isn’t there some sort of place where a kid can go and just hop into a warm bed and have a nice warm Weetbix or something like that?  Why do they have to be homeless for six months and then offend on the streets?” (Jay)

“When you’ve constantly had the bare minimum or below your entire life from people that are meant to support you…people going above and beyond make all the difference”. (Renee)

The full report is available at www.anglicare-tas.org.au/better-bigger-stronger

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