National mental health policy 2008

2.4 Early intervention

Page last updated: 2009

People with an emerging mental health problem or mental illness will be identified and treated as early as possible in the initial phase and any subsequent episode, to minimise the severity and duration of the condition and to reduce its broader impacts.
Early intervention can reduce the impact of mental health problems and mental illness through interventions for:

  • identified at-risk populations
  • people experiencing a mental health problem or mental illness for the first time
  • people who are experiencing early indications of a relapse or recurrence of illness.
Mental health problems and mental illness often first appear in adolescence or early adulthood, and can seriously disrupt school, work and family relationships. This can have immediate and potentially long-term negative personal and social outcomes, such as substance abuse and behavioural problems. Complex mental health problems can also appear in childhood and infancy and can impact on early development and long-term mental health and well-being. Older Australians can also experience specific problems associated with late onset of mental illness. Within all age groups, some people may experience a single episode whereas others will have recurrences throughout their lives. Each episode may have economic and social repercussions, jeopardising education, job and housing security and disrupting relationships.

Successful early identification and intervention requires clear access pathways and a coordinated approach which is suited to individual life stages and situations and takes into account the impact of environmental and social factors on mental health and well-being. Early intervention involves a range of health and other sectors, carers, advocates and families, and requires appropriate services accessible by well-supported referral pathways.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities are often characterised by high numbers of children and adolescents, fewer adults and still fewer elders. Innovative, culturally respectful approaches to early intervention are required in these communities.

In the mental health sector, specially-targeted early intervention programs can address underlying difficulties for children and young people with emerging mental health problems. They can also reduce negative impacts for those who are at risk of developing mental illness or who are recovering from a first episode of illness. In addition, they can avert crises for people at risk of relapse by mobilising support when warning signs appear. Where relapse does occur, early intervention programs can minimise the impact of the episode by offering a rapid treatment response.

Workers in sectors outside mental health also have an important role in early intervention because they are often well-placed to observe changes in an individual’s behaviour or demeanour and intervene in these settings. For example, a maternal and child health worker may identify behavioural problems in an infant presenting for a routine check; a teacher may notice that a student has become withdrawn; an employer may see that a worker is not coping with his or her usual tasks; or a volunteer serving meals in a homeless persons’ shelter may become aware of the changes in a person who comes to the shelter. Families, carers and workers in relevant sectors must be given appropriate support and be equipped with the core knowledge, competencies and resources necessary to detect and respond appropriately to early signs of mental illness.