Fourth national mental health plan: an agenda for collaborative government action in mental health 2009-2014

Priority area 2: prevention and early intervention

Page last updated: 2009

Summary of actions
Cross-portfolio implications
Indicators for monitoring change


People have a better understanding and recognition of mental health problems and mental illness. They are supported to develop resilience and coping skills. People are better prepared to seek help for themselves, and to support others to prevent or intervene early in the onset or recurrence of mental illness. There is greater recognition and response to co-occurring alcohol and other drug problems, physical health issues and suicidal behaviour. Generalist services have support and access to advice and specialist services when needed.

Summary of actions

  • Work with schools, workplaces and communities to deliver programs to improve mental health literacy and enhance resilience.
  • Implement targeted prevention and early intervention programs for children and their families through partnerships between mental health, maternal and child health services, schools and other related organisations.
  • Expand community based youth mental health services which are accessible and combine primary health care, mental health and alcohol and other drug services.
  • Implement evidence based and cost effective models of intervention for early psychosis in young people to provide broader national coverage.
  • Coordinate state, territory and Commonwealth suicide prevention activities through a nationally agreed suicide prevention framework to improve efforts to identify people at risk of suicide and improve the effectiveness of services and support available to them.
  • Provide education about mental health and suicide prevention to front line workers in emergency, welfare and associated sectors.
  • Expand the level and range of support for families and carers of people with mental illness and mental health problems, including children of parents with a mental illness.
  • Develop tailored mental health care responses for highly vulnerable children and young people who have experienced physical, sexual or emotional abuse, or other trauma.Top of page

Cross-portfolio implications

To support a collaborative whole of government approach, these actions will require the health sector to work collaboratively with departments and agencies representing areas such as community services, child and family services, aged care, alcohol and other drugs, housing, justice and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander partnerships.

Indicators for monitoring change

  • Proportion of primary and secondary schools with mental health literacy component included in curriculum
  • Rates of contact with primary mental health care by children and young people
  • Rates of use of licit and illicit drugs that contribute to mental illness in young people
  • Rates of suicide in the community
  • Proportion of front-line workers within given sectors who have been exposed to relevant education and training *
  • Rates of understanding of mental health problems and mental illness in the community *
  • Prevalence of mental illness * Top of page


The importance of promotion, prevention and early intervention (PPEI) in mental health has been recognised in previous plans. Promotion, Prevention and Early Intervention for Mental Health: A Monograph and the subsequent National Action Plan on Promotion, Prevention and Early Intervention in Mental Health remain key documents informing action in this area. In recent years there has been development of a stronger evidence base to support models of intervention in children and young people - especially in areas such as early intervention in psychosis, and school and family based interventions for challenging behaviours. But we also need to recognise the importance of relapse prevention and early intervention for people who experience recurrent episodes of illness, to minimise the distress and disruption experienced by the consumer and their families and carers. Prevention and early intervention activities are therefore best considered from three perspectives: early in life, early in illness and early in episode. The primary care sector has a particularly important role to play in prevention, both in promoting behaviours that support good mental health, and in the management of chronic or recurring illness to lessen the negative impact of illness.

Primary prevention endeavours to avoid the development of an illness, generally through population based health activities, mental health promotion and reduction of known risk factors such as exposure to child abuse, sexual assault and domestic violence. Secondary prevention aims to prevent progression through recognition of emerging symptoms and early intervention. Tertiary prevention targets the negative impact of an illness through continuing treatment and rehabilitation. Prevention activities can also be considered across universal, selected and targeted areas. Responsibility for prevention is shared by individuals, families and the community.

Mental health needs to be seen as important for the whole population, with better awareness of factors that support resilience and coping strategies including self care, community connectedness and engagement. Not all mental illnesses can be prevented. However, the impact and subsequent disability can be lessened by early and effective intervention. While prevention and early intervention are relevant at all ages, it is recognised that there is increased risk of mental illness at some life stages, in certain groups within the Australian community, and in association with critical life events. For example, intervention directed to parents and infants in the perinatal period to encourage positive attachment, and in early childhood to support appropriate social interaction and engagement, has been shown to enhance resilience.

Recognising children who are showing disturbed behaviour and intervening in school and family environments can lessen the risk of subsequent conduct disorder and propensity to substance dependence. Some groups experience multiple areas of disadvantage and vulnerability. For example, children in care may have experienced parental rejection, inconsistent care or domestic violence. Young people in youth justice are often disengaged from their families or other social supports, and have engaged in risk taking behaviour including substance use. There should be a particular priority given to addressing the multiple needs of such groups, including their mental health needs.

Mental health problems are also more likely to occur in association with disability, including intellectual disability, and with physical ill health. Serious mental illnesses such as schizophrenia and anorexia nervosa may first become apparent during adolescence and early adulthood - a time critical for the establishment of relationships, family and vocation. Intervening early in the onset of a dementing illness, or depression with onset in old age, will assist in sustaining independent living or maintenance in familiar surroundings.

Top of pageIf a person has experienced a mental illness, better knowledge about the illness will assist them and their family and carers to be aware of warning signs of relapse and the steps to take to intervene early. This can circumvent the development of an episode of illness and the associated personal and social disturbance. Additional effort through re-orienting the service system can bring substantial improvement to individual and community outcomes.

*These indicators require further development