‘Adolescents’ mental health needs are not being met,’ expert warns

A national study has been launched into the prevalence of mental disorders in Malta’s child and adolescent population

The mental health needs of adolescents are not being met, exposing a lack of resources in child psychiatry, psychiatric registrar Rosemarie Sacco has said.

The World Health Organisation has estimated that over half of all cases of mental disorders would have begun before age 14, however, the majority of these remain untreated well into adulthood.

Moreover, the greater pressures on families and young people in the digital age may increase psychological distress. And emotional difficulties among young people are associated with education failure, school expulsion, occupational failure, intimate relationship breakdown and criminality.

The Association for Child and Adolescent Mental Health (ACAMH-Malta) along with the Malta Council for the Voluntary Sector is now embarking on a research initiative aimed at studying the prevalence of mental disorders in the local child and adolescent population.

Launched on 13 January, the research initiative will be working with 30 schools across Malta and Gozo, reaching a total of 11,000 adolescents between the ages of five and 16 years.

Speaking to MaltaToday, Sacco, a psychiatric registrar who is leading the project, expressed concern at the limited resources child psychiatry received. “While our kids do get help, we often end up not being able to meet their needs because of our limited resources.”

Sacco said these shortcomings were acknowledged in the Mental Health Strategy report published in December 2018. “We don’t have an epidemiological study or even prevalence rates to work with. We don’t have any numbers to help us indicate how many children are suffering from certain conditions; without the numbers, we cannot build a service that caters to our kids’ needs.”

The research initiative will be screening a random sample of the population, looking out for depression, anxiety, ADHD, autism, eating disorders, substance abuse as well as bullying on social media. “We are also going to be looking at the child holistically, including interviewing the parents. We will be gauging what their family dynamics are like, what problems the family face, as well as their views on mental health issues, all of which affect the child,” she said.

Sacco said the government’s mental health services had noticed an increasing amount of referrals from schools.

“An increase in referrals, however, translates into long waiting lists. If a child takes over three years to get a diagnosis for autism, that child is not getting the help that they need.

“We know from studies, across Europe, children are less likely to be taken to a doctor unless that child is significantly affecting the family. In fact, we know that there are a lot of children that need help and support, but are simply not getting it because the services are currently not available,” she said.

Sacco said the lack of help could have long-lasting effects. “If adolescents do not receive help when they require it, it could affect their future development, including their academic functions as well as their ability to form healthy relationships with others.

“These issues will then persist into adulthood, affecting their ability to have gainful employment or even keep a job. It’s a domino effect.”

She warned that untreated mental health issues could lead to substance abuse, as adolescents may try and self medicate in response.

“By mid-2020, we are likely to have some indications as to how many children are suffering from mental health issues. This will give us a good idea of the problems adolescents and their families are facing, which will, in turn, allow us to create strategies tailored specifically to meet their needs. By 2021, we should have accurate data on how many adolescents are suffering from mental health issues as well as exactly what disorders are the most prevalent.”