Helping parents and educators work together to support children’s mental health concerns

Claire Halliday
Claire Halliday
A new book by Dr Billy Garvey aims to help educators and families identify and support children's mental health concerns.

Every teacher and parent want the children in their lives to enjoy positive mental health, and leading developmental paediatrician Dr Billy Garvey hopes his new book, Ten Things I Wish You Knew About Your Child’s Mental Health, can help.

Over half of adult mental illness begins before children are 14 and currently, one in seven Australian children aged four-17 years old meet the clinical criteria for a mental illness over a 12-month period. But, unfortunately, only about half of them will see any clinician at all (35 per cent GP, 24 per cent psychologist, 21 per cent paediatrician, seven per cent psychiatrist) – and that’s a statistic that can leave many educators struggling to find solutions.

‘Dr Billy’ is a senior specialist at one of the largest tertiary paediatric hospitals in the world where he sees families, trains clinicians and other professionals working with children, and conducts research in child development and mental health. He sees children of all ages are increasingly grappling with anxiety, depression, low self-esteem and behavioural issues and says that, because of increasing demand – impacted by the flow-on of the social isolation and distress that affected so many young Australians during the worst days of the COVID-19 pandemic – it can as long as two years for children to be able to see an expert who can help them.

By writing his new book, the co-host of the Pop Culture Parenting podcast hopes to help both families and educational professionals gain a deeper knowledge of how to help children exhibiting mental health struggles. By understanding the foundations of good mental health, he believes parents and teachers can help children to thrive at any stage in their development

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“There is a lot of weight on teachers, and I’ve spent a lot of time with them – including doing my PhD about how to improve their capacity to identify support kids with mental health concerns,” Dr Billy told EducationDaily.

“We need to support them and recognise their value a bit better. They really are some of the most important professionals in our community.”

With data revealing that mental health issues, including anxiety and depression, are rising in young people, Dr Billy says “it’s really important to realise that teachers are going to be meeting these kids and being their support – and sometimes their only support, for kids who are experiencing developmental trauma at home, or family violence or parental mental illness”.

Dr Billy’s new book will be published by Penguin Life on 9 July.

He told EducationDaily that, whenever he talks at schools about the importance of recognising children’s mental health concerns, the reaction from educators can be a weary complaint that ‘this is another thing we’ve got to fit into our day’.

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“But when you do provide practical support and evidence-based strategies that can be used for educators, it can be really helpful,” he says.

“The kids’ mental health challenges don’t go away, so when you do give the teachers useful, evidence-based strategies that support kids’ mental health, it actually supports the teachers’ mental health too. We’re publishing some research on this now. It actually builds confidence for educators to identify and support kids better – and that leads to teachers experiencing better job satisfaction and less risk of burnout.”

A professional pathway with purpose

His official biography describes how his 20 years of experience in the field of paediatric mental health has driven him to find the ‘sweet spot’ between the medical textbooks and real life when it comes to looking after our kids. 

Dr Billy’s own pathway to becoming a medical specialist is certainly a little different. He was born and raised in the tough outer-Melbourne suburb of Frankston, and lived there until his mid-twenties, working in varying part time roles from age 14, including as a hospital cleaner, childcare worker, factory line worker, bartender, supermarket night fill and forklift driver.

Six years working in childcare at Frankston City Council – the same childcare he had attended while his mum (who moved from Ireland to Australia as a teenager, pregnant and on her own) struggled to balance three jobs and raise three boys – proved formative.

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It was Dr Billy’s time there, combined with his experience getting kicked out of high school, that drove his desire to pursue developmental paediatrics and use his upbringing and life experience to help support other families and kids.

Real-world stories inform practical strategies

To share his strategies in a way that is easy to read and genuinely practical, Dr Billy says the book’s structure has each chapter focusing on a different topic and framing that topic around (non-identifying) details about a child he has met in his clinic.

“I talk about how I used the evidence-based strategy a for a child who presented with, for example, anxiety, or depression, or behavioural difficulties, or emotional challenges, or self-harm – and explain how we identified what was going on with this kid and how we then supported them.”

When his team polls teachers and parents about their level of insight into identifying and taking action about a child’s mental health concerns, Dr Billy says they say things like ‘I don’t feel confident that I can identify them – sometimes I think it’s better left alone’. But he told EducationDaily that approach becomes part of the problem, rather than a sustainable solution, because “the majority of kids who meet the criteria for mental illness, won’t see a specialist clinician”.

20+ years of experience understanding children’s mental health has helped Dr Billy identify strategies that help support everyone involved.

Children need access to professional support

According to data driven by Medicare records, just 35 per cent of them might see a general practitioner as their only touch point to explore potential mental health issues.

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Dr Billy says it’s critical that those numbers change – and that supporting educators to play a vital role is one way to achieve better outcomes.

“If we have phenomenal professionals like educators who can notice that little Johnny or little Billy is misbehaving for a reason, or has started withdrawing from class, or acting out, or is daydreaming, or might not be coming to school any more, or is becoming violent, or not being able to concentrate, or is struggling socially by either bullying other kids or being bullied, it can be am amazing conduit to positive action,” he told EducationDaily.

“We want educators to do more than simply wonder what’s going on by having a way to think about that, understand the situation and the process they can take to try to figure out what’s going on and then what they can do to help do something about it”.

The result, he says, can include improving the educators’ satisfaction at work and their own mental health.

“Then the child is more likely to be seen by a mental health professional through the support of the educator communicating with the family.”

Helping teachers helps children

And to help teachers face those tough conversations with families, his book also outlines the steps and skills needed to support that process.

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“The way you approach it is not one of authority but one of trying to seek a shared understanding to improve outcomes for the kid – making sure we’re in partnership and understand what everyone’s roles are.”

The responsibility to understand how to be proactive is also up to the parent, so that clear and honest communication from both sides – school and home – reinforces the collective goal that can lead to a child with mental health concerns being recognised and guided towards access to professional support.

“The most important thing teachers do is support the social and emotional development of children – not how quickly they can read or if they are the top of their class.”

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Claire Halliday has an extensive career as a full-time writer - across book publishing, copywriting, podcasting and feature journalism - for more than 25 years. She lives in Melbourne with children, two border collies and a grumpy Burmese cat. Contact: claire.halliday[at]