Youth mental health a multi-million-dollar burden on Australian families

Media release

06 December 2021

Caring for the mental health of children and adolescents is costing Australian families and the public purse more than $200 million a year, a new study has found.

Research led by Dr Long Le, an Alfred Deakin Postdoctoral Fellow from Deakin Health Economics, found that each year nearly $200 million in mental health care expenses is billed to Medicare and $37 million is paid by families in out-of-pocket expenses for the diagnosis and treatment of mentally unwell young people.

Dr Le said the findings showed the considerable financial burden for families with a child experiencing mental health issues and presented a strong case for spending on prevention strategies.

"Mental disorders in children and adolescents are common, with one in seven diagnosed with a mental disorder and one in three with mental health symptoms," Dr Le said.

"Our study shows that aside from the substantive impacts these disorders have on children and adolescents and on their families, there are significant costs to Medicare and high out-of-pocket costs faced by the families.

"Children and adolescents with two or more mental disorders had the highest average annual Medicare costs of mental health services followed by those with depression, conduct disorder and anxiety.

"Interestingly, ADHD was associated with higher spending on medication costs and general health service costs but not on mental health-related services."

Dr Le said that children and adolescents with mental health symptoms who did not meet the full criteria of a mental disorder are large contributors to the total Medicare costs, especially those with anxiety symptoms.

Director of Deakin Health Economics, Professor Cathy Mihalopoulos, said half the costs were for services used by children who did not meet the full criteria of a mental disorder, and most were for general health related services.

"People with mental health symptoms might seek help from general health professionals such as GPs or paediatricians, rather than mental health professionals as they might not be eligible for specialised care via Medicare's Better Access program," Professor Mihalopoulos said.

"One way to help reduce such high costs is to prevent mental disorders from developing and there are a number of cost-effective preventative interventions or strategies available.

"There is strong evidence that screening together with the delivery of psychological interventions at school are the most cost-effective interventions for prevention of mental disorders in children and adolescents.

"We know the costs associated with mental health issues are high and we also know that mental health prevention and promotion is cost effective. What do we need to implement such interventions?" Professor Mihalopoulos said.

These studies have been published in the Plos One and Plos Medicine.

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