Mental health disorders are on the rise among Aboriginal peoples according to a study by the Telethon Institute for Child Health Research. The study found that the incidence of mental disorders has an impact on children’s health and for Aboriginal parents this is at least twice the rate than for non-Aboriginal parents.

The latest study follows a recent study from Neuroscience Research Australia which found that Aboriginal peoples are three times more likely to suffer dementia than non-Aboriginal Australians.

The myriad hardships, ailments and traumas that Aboriginal peoples endure and which are believed to lead to the increased risk of dementia are also contributing stressors that lead to any number of mental disorders. The risk factors damage the brain and its functions.

The Telethon study was published today in the Medical Journal of Australia. It aggregated and reviewed hospital admissions and outpatient clinic visits for patients with mental health disorders for all parents of babies born in Western Australia between 1990 to 2005.

The main outcome measure of the study was the prevalence of prior mental health disorders in parents by birth year and by parent and child characteristics, including Aboriginality, maternal age, socioeconomic status and diagnostic groups.

The study found that from 1990 to 2005, “there was an increase in prevalence of prior mental health disorders in mothers, from 76 per 1000 births in 1990 to 131 per 1000 births in 2005.” This suggests a 3.7 per cent per year “in the odds of children being born to a mother with a prior mental health disorder.”

“There was also 4.7 per cent increase in odds per year in the prevalence of mental health contacts that had taken place in the 12 months before the birth year in mothers. In addition, there was an increase in prevalence of prior mental health disorders in fathers, from 56 per 1000 births in 1990 to 88 per 1000 births in 2005.” This suggests a 3.1 per cent increase in the odds per year.

“The diagnostic group with the highest prevalence in both mothers and fathers was substance-related disorders.”

Stress-related determinants and psychotic disorders were also on the rise and therefore the high prevalence is not limited to substance abuse. This is important in considering the disproportionate rate for Aboriginal peoples. Many of the hardships faced by Aboriginal peoples are unique to them and the majority of these hardships are faced from the beginning of life.

The report concluded that it has been long established “that parental mental health can affect children’s outcomes.”

“These outcomes not only relate to children’s mental health but also language development, behaviour and physical health.”

The horrific rates of otitis media and trachoma among Aboriginal peoples continue to shame Australia.

“An inter-generational pathway of how parental mental health can adversely affect children’s development has been suggested, which includes the direct effects of the illness and associated contextual stressors, such as poverty and disruptions to caregiving.”

“Social welfare agencies have reported increasing numbers of families facing complex issues, including parental mental health problems and substance use, resulting in concerns about children’s wellbeing.”

The Medical Journal of Australia noted in its report from the Telethon Institute that “West Australia has good data on the rates of mental health disorders in the Australian community, (but) the prevalence of mental health disorders in parents is difficult to estimate.”

Western Australia is only behind the Northern Territory with the worst homelessness rate in the nation and its Aboriginal peoples are the majority of homelessness regionally in the State. Many impoverished Aboriginal communities lack substantive access to the suite of health care.

“The National Survey of Mental Health and Wellbeing reported that 25 per cent of individuals aged 16 to 44 years had a mental health disorder in the 12 months before completing the survey. This is an age group in which people are most likely to become parents.”

According to the Telethon Institute no previous studies had investigated the population prevalence and current mental health disorders in parents. “We aimed to fill this research gap by using mental health-related data on public and private hospital inpatient admissions and public outpatient contacts.”

In determining population prevalence of parental mental health disorders health data was collected from WA’s Hospital Morbidity Data Collection, from the Mental Health Information System, from the Midwives Notification System and the Birth Register. For instance the Hospital Morbidity Data Collection contains information on all hospital admissions with corresponding diagnostic information.

“Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children and parents were identified if the child or parent was listed in the birth or midwives data as being Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander.”

Data on disadvantage was also collected and classified in order to determine trends.

“Socioeconomic status was determined using the Index of Relative Social Disadvantage assigned to each collection district by the Australian Bureau of Statistics. Four levels of disadvantage were classified – 1 for low disadvantage to 4 for high disadvantage.”

The proportion of Aboriginal children born to mothers with mental health disorders was 269 per 1000. This is more than twice the rate for non-Aboriginal mothers. Fathers fared better but nevertheless once again the divide between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal fathers was two and half times – 204 per 1000 births for Aboriginal fathers as compared to 80 per 1000 births for non-Aboriginal fathers.

The study reported that “low socioeconomic status and being Aboriginal significantly increased the odds.” The study suggested that “an increasing burden in Aboriginal families of parents with a mental disorder, and highlights the need for culturally appropriate mental health services such as healing and well-being centres, as called for in the Bringing Them Home report.”