Department of Health

Risk factors for children and young people

Key messages

  • Some children and young people have certain issues or vulnerabilities that increase their level of risk and burden of mental illness.
  • These issues include sexuality and gender, substance use, homelessness, involvement in child protection or youth justice, disability or history of trauma.

Some infants, children and young people have issues or vulnerabilities that add to their level of risk and burden of mental illness, including sexuality and gender issues, alcohol and drug misuse, homelessness, living in out-of-home care, involvement with the youth justice system, Aboriginality, disability, refugee status or having a parent with a mental illness.

Sexuality and gender

Gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender young people are at increased risk of anxiety, depressive disorders and suicide.

Alcohol and drug misuse

Dual diagnosis – that is, problematic misuse of alcohol and other drugs concurrent with mental health problems – is increasingly common among youth, and problem drinking is occurring at increasingly younger ages.

Drinking and other drug use impact significantly on the developing brains of children and adolescents, and this can have social impacts for both child and family.

The young people who are most likely to have significant alcohol and drug problems are those who experience first-episode psychosis, live in out-of-home care or are involved with youth justice and correctional services.

Homelessness

Children living with homeless parents, and young people who are homeless or at risk of homelessness, are more likely to experience mental health problems as a result of their homelessness.

They are also more likely to be homeless as a result of a mental health problem or experiences of abuse, neglect and family violence.

Young people who are homeless or at risk of homelessness may engage in self-harming behaviour, which can help them seek support at times of crisis, but can also be a barrier to care.

Despite not having a straightforward diagnosis, young people who are homeless have a high risk of functional impairment or disability and long-term risk of suicide.

Out of home care

Infants, children and young people in out-of-home care (and their families) are some of the most vulnerable and disadvantaged members of our community.

Children’s early attachment to parents and carers and connection to community and culture is of fundamental importance. When this is breached, the child’s complex experiences of loss and trauma can have a profound impact on every aspect of development.

Youth justice system

Young people involved in the youth justice system are often vulnerable and more likely to experience mental health problems than the general community. Most have drug and alcohol problems related to their offending.

Aboriginal children and young people

Aboriginal children, young people and families have poorer access to mental health services and supports, and are under-represented in these services.

Loss of culture, experiences of trauma and loss, and the higher morbidity and earlier mortality of Aboriginal people increase risk to the individual. This risk can be transferred through generations, increasing the need for targeted, culturally sensitive mental health intervention.

Children and young people with a disability

Disability is defined in Victoria as including intellectual, physical, sensory and dual disabilities, neurological impairments and acquired brain injury.

Children and young people with a disability are at increased risk of developing comorbid mental health difficulties and disorders.

Young refugees

Young refugees are a highly vulnerable group. They may be settling in Australia without family support after traumatic histories in their home country, and often after transitional placements in other countries.

Many will distrust government support and may know little or nothing about what help is available to them.

Mental health services need to work closely with refugee communities and their support agencies, guided by specialist services such as Foundation House and the Victorian Transcultural Mental Health service, to ensure that young refugees in their local community have easy access to mental health support when required.

Parents with a mental illness

Most children of parents with a mental illness stay quite well and may need support only.

However, Australian studies show that children living in these families are generally more at risk than the general population. Some are vulnerable and need services, and some are at increased risk of injury and/or abuse, or of developing severe disorders themselves.

Reviewed 26 November 2021

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