A south-west principal has welcomed a state government announcement which will see every Victorian school having a mental health and well-being leader by 2026.
Port Fairy Consolidated School principal Kate Anderson said it was imperative to get more mental health and well-being support into primary schools.
While she welcomed the new role, she said she had concerns given current staff shortages whether schools would be able to recruit the right people for the job.
"My hope with this position is the pay allows us to employ someone and it's financially supported to be able to put the right person in the right job at the right time," she said.
"It's really exciting and there is an absolute need in primary schools. The government is listening to principals in primary and secondary schools that we need more financial support. We just need to be able to put the right person in the job, so hopefully we'll be supported to do that."
She said COVID-19 had shone a spotlight on mental health but the issues children were facing had always been there.
"It's just now people are paying attention to it," she said.
"It's something we've been aware of for a very long time. It's always been there, it's just becoming more prevalent as the awareness grows. Schools have always been well-being first and academic second it's just getting the support to be able to look at the well-being and this will help us to do that.
"They've realised they need it in secondary but we absolutely need it in primary. It's really exciting."
Minister for Mental Health and Education James Merlino said the Royal Commission into Victoria's Mental Health System highlighted the important role schools played to identify children with mental health and wellbeing challenges who could then be referred to treatment, care and support.
He said the evidence was really exciting and the $200 million to expand the existing Mental Health in Primary Schools program would support individual students, help teachers better identify and support at-risk students, and build relationships and referral pathways to local mental health services.
The evidence-based early intervention primary school program will expand to Victoria's government primary schools and low-fee non-government schools over the next four years, starting in term three. Between 400 to 450 schools will start the program each year, with a third of those in rural and regional areas. It will include training for teacher leaders.
"What this delivers is a mental health leader in every school and it's a whole school approach," Mr Merlino said.
"It's about predominantly identifying and supporting students at an early stage. It's about early identification, early prevention and referral to other support services if needed."
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Trained teacher leaders will facilitate the program which is also about increasing a sense confidence in school staff, teachers and students to talk about mental health, early identification and referral to other support services.
"It's about trust and confidence," Mr Merlino said. "We want every child and young person to be confident they could go to their teacher and say 'I'm really struggling with my mental health and I need help' and then the capacity and the confidence of the teacher to support that student."
The program builds on a successful pilot which began with 10 schools and expanded to 100 schools across Victoria, in partnership with the Murdoch Children's Research Institute and Melbourne University.
Schools chosen for the pilot were across a cross-section of rural, regional, outer metro and metropolitan schools. Almost half, 47, of the pilot participants were located in regional or rural Victoria.
He said of the schools that participated, 95 per cent said it improved and increased their school's capacity to support students' mental health and wellbeing needs. Parents also commented they'd noticed an improvement in students' mental health at home.
Mr Merlino said mental health reform was already needed and on top of the pandemic the timing was "absolutely critical".
"We already knew our mental health system was broken," Mr Merlino said. "The Royal Commission exposed that starkly. Just how broken the system was and the tens of thousands of young people and adults who simply could not get the level of service in their local communities.
"Then on top of that, we've got two and-a-half years of a global pandemic and we know that's had a mental health and wellbeing impact on children and young people," Mr Merlino said.
He said the government had made a commitment to roll out mental health practitioners to every government secondary and specialist school and it had delivered that.
Mr Merlino said after long periods of lockdown and remote learning every young person's needs were different, some had socialisation or behavioral issues while others had more "significant mental health impacts".
"There's no doubt the pandemic has exacerbated what was already a big challenge for us," Mr Merlino said.
"This is about having a leader and a teacher leading a whole-school approach and identifying needs, early interventions, engaging with their wellbeing team and also looking outside of the school to other support services."
"These are teacher leaders because it's important the teaching workforce increase their capacity and confidence in dealing and supporting student with mental health needs," he said.
Mr Merlino said half of all cases of anxiety, mood, impulse control and substance use disorders manifest by the age of 14. Research suggests students with mental health concerns are behind their peers in grade three, falling further behind throughout school.
"Rather than waiting until these significant mental health issues manifest at (age) 14, 18, 20, 25 if we can engage with a child and their family in grade 2 and up, imagine the difference that we can make and that's why I'm so excited about this project."
He's aware of workforce challenges especially mental health clinicians and professionals in order to deliver the reform that was needed across his portfolio.
Mr Merlino also introduced a new Mental Health and Wellbeing Act on Tuesday which he said would replace the current Mental Health Act 2014 which deals "predominantly with compulsory treatment, restrictive practices".
He said lived experience would be a central pillar of the new system and embedded in new entities, including regional Mental Health and Wellbeing Boards, and through a new Mental Health and Wellbeing Commission.
"I am so proud to introduce today's Mental Health and Well-being Bill to Parliament - this is a historic moment in building our new mental health system, and one that will make a profound change to the way we support Victorians for generations to come."
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