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Women, kids and Australia’s mental health crisis


Women’s health problems, depression and child abuse represented a major health crisis in Australia, a seminar focusing on women and mental health over the weekend was told.

The Director of the Centre for Mental Health Research, Professor Helen Christensen, said at the seminar that many mental health problems were far more common in women than men.

“Depression alone affects approximately 1.3 million Australian women ever year, compared with 750,000 men,” Professor Christensen said.

"Post partum depression and mental illness in pregnancy are unique disorders which may affect the relationship between a mother and her child into the future. Women need specialist treatment and early screening.

"In addition, women are more likely to suffer eating disorders and panic disorder. Men are more likely to suffer from antisocial personality disorder, to experience alcohol abuse and to have premature death because of suicide.

"The causes of the higher rates of depression and mental illness are not known. However, we do know that risk factors prevalent in women include poverty, violence, self harm, sexual abuse, family responsibilities and the role of the carer.

"The Centre’s research through the work of Dr Peter Butterworth has shown that one in three welfare recipients experienced a diagnosable mental disorder during the previous 12 months of the study period.

“Around 45 per cent of unpartnered women with children in receipt of income support payments were identified with a mental disorder, compared with 19 per cent for the general population. Structural and economic factors are potentially very important in pointing to areas of reform,” she said.

The seminar heard Dr Louise Newman, Director of the NSW Institute of Psychiatry, describe child abuse as one of Australia’s major public health problems.

“The mental health risk is two to four times higher for people who have suffered child abuse, yet there are hardly any dedicated services available for people experiencing the long term impact of that abuse,” Dr Newman said.

"There are, for example, few services available to adolescents who experience sexual abuse. The likelihood of those adolescents committing suicide is 27 times higher than those who have not been abused, while the likelihood of depression and conduct disorder is nine times higher.

“Child abuse is also associated with problems including parenting difficulties, suicide and self harm, anxiety and eating disorders,” she said.

Dr Newman said studies of children in detention centres, including Woomera and Baxter, indicated they would suffer long-term psychological effects.

“These children are being held in brutalising, de-humanising environment, and are living with adults who are profoundly depressed,” Dr Newman said.


“The UN Convention on Human Rights says that detention of children should only be a matter of last resort, and yet 3,360 minors were imprisoned in detention in Australia between 1992 and 2004.” For more information: Kylie Brittliffe, Australian Foundation for Mental Health Research, 02 6125 8405.


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