We must invest in understanding childhood trauma

28 May 2019

Julia Gillard

We have always known intuitively that childhood experiences shape the adults we become. Now, through research, we can move from this broad, common sense view to a much deeper understanding about the causal connections between childhood trauma and the likelihood of mental health conditions developing.

We now know up to one-third of depression, anxiety and self-harm conditions experienced by Australian adults are related to childhood maltreatment.

We are talking about many thousands of children whose everyday experiences may include poverty, neglect, abuse, bullying, family conflict or violence. The circumstances confronting these children will be different. But likely scenarios include living with relatives who have poor mental health, drug and alcohol problems, perhaps family strains from long-term unemployment and financial difficulties, inadequate housing, even homelessness.

The term “Adverse Childhood Experiences” is used to describe these types of abuse, neglect and other traumatic experiences that occur to people under 18.

The effects can cascade into poor learning outcomes; children with persistent emotional or behavioural problems fall a year behind their peers in numeracy in the four years between years 3 and 7, with smaller trends in reading.

Of course, we can’t say every child who has an Adverse Childhood Experience will develop a mental health condition. Nor will every young person experiencing mental ill health have endured childhood trauma.

But we do know that half of all adult mental health conditions — such as depression and anxiety — emerge before a child is 14 years old. We also know that about one in seven children aged four to 17 will experience a mental health condition.

In my political life, and particularly as the member for Lalor, people confided stories of childhood hardships and adult struggles. I was moved by the trust and honesty these people showed, and hoped they were somehow reassured that somebody was listening. I was similarly moved when the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse handed down its findings at the end of 2017.

I have been humbled by the courage displayed by those who gave evidence to the commission and shared harrowing stories of the effects of those childhood experiences on their lives.

What these stories tell us is that it is not good enough to be a sympathetic bystander or a silent witness to abuse, inequity and disadvantage. We must act to protect children. We must prevent future failings so that generations to come are not trapped in the cycle of trauma and disadvantage.

When prevention is not possible, early intervention is vital. And we must offer reassurance that anyone who speaks out will be heard and believed, not dismissed and chastised.

While we know more today than we used to about childhood trauma and its effects, we still can’t see every part of the picture. We need more research. That’s why I am so pleased that today, the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute will launch the Centre of Research Excellence in Childhood Adversity and Mental Health, which is jointly funded by Beyond Blue and the National Health & Medical Research Council.

Beyond Blue is proud to support the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute team, which is dedicated to discovering ways to prevent and treat conditions affecting babies, children and adolescents.

The institute was established 33 years ago with the support of the remarkable and much-loved, Dame Elisabeth Murdoch. Beyond Blue, of course, is the brainchild of Jeff Kennett, former premier of Victoria and my predecessor as chair. Today, our organisations unite to advance the work begun by those two great Melburnians and to work towards better preventing the circumstances that contribute to mental health issues in young people.

At Beyond Blue, we believe in the power of evidence and we have invested nearly $70 million in depression, anxiety and suicide prevention research.

Now, we are honoured to co-partner the National Health and Medical Research Council in funding the $2.5 million Centre of Research Excellence in Childhood Adversity and Mental Health.

The centre will be led by Professor Harriet Hiscock and involve researchers from across Australia, including Monash University, the University of Melbourne and the University of New South Wales. This five-year initiative will investigate which adverse childhood experiences and the developmental stages at which they occur are most associated with depression, anxiety and suicidality. It will research which interventions are most likely to be effective.

Today, we take a step forward in breaking the cycle of childhood adversity and mental ill health.

This is one important way we can help create an Australia in which every child gets the chance to thrive and be mentally healthy.