Being exposed to abuse or neglect before age five is the strongest predictor of whether a child will be at risk for future mental illness, a study from UNSW Sydney finds.

Primary school teachers could detect children at high risk of developing mental disorders soon after they start school, new research at UNSW Sydney suggests.

The study used teacher assessments of children in kindergarten, linked with administrative records, and found that being exposed to abuse or neglect before age five was the strongest predictor of whether a child would be at risk for future mental illness.

Associate Professor Melissa Green of the UNSW School of Psychiatry says that while much attention and funding have been directed toward clinical services providing early mental health intervention for adolescents, it is unlikely that this approach alone will reduce the prevalence of mental illness in young people.

Susceptibility to mental illness needs to be reliably detected much earlier in childhood, before the emergence of symptoms, and the study published in the Australian and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry provides an insight into how this might occur.

The researchers set out to identify patterns of childhood development at age five that may serve as early markers of risk for mental illness.

Using a NSW population of 67,353 children selected from the NSW Child Development Study, they identified four groups of children based on their developmental functioning in the 2009 Australian Early Development Census (AEDC).

– Gabrielle Dunlevy

Read more: Preventing Adult Mental Disorders at Kindergarten

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