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Siblings of children with disability need support

Siblings of children with disability need support

Over 60 child and mental health organisations are calling on the Australian and New Zealand governments to provide mental health support to siblings of children with disability or chronic illness, a group presently neglected and at risk of mental health problems.

“Siblings of children with disability or chronic illness are at risk for behavioural, mental and physical health problems. If left unaddressed, the challenges which siblings face can increase their risk of developing longer term mental health problems. In spite of considerable lobbying over a number of years, there remains a lack of coordinated activities and national action to support this group of at risk children,” said Dr Maria Tomasic, President of The Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists.

Launched today by The Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists’ Faculty of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, a position statement and report, Addressing the needs of siblings of children with disability or chronic illness, outlines the experience of siblings, explores sibling support and makes recommendations for future initiatives.

“Despite their obvious need, siblings of children with disability or chronic illness continue to be overlooked and support services remain inadequate. Siblings are not good advocates for themselves as they often feel guilty or disloyal if they discuss their concerns. Parents are often so stretched emotionally and physically that it is difficult for them to address issues or advocate for more sibling support,” said Dr Nick Kowalenko, Chair of The Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists’ Faulty of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry.

“In families with a child with disability, the other children are just as important and they have just as much need for support. They need help with understanding what is happening around them, with expressing their mixed feelings, and with managing a range of other challenges they face,” said Ms Jayne Lehmann, an Adelaide mother to three daughters, one with a disability.
“There are a number of systemic gaps that contribute significantly to the inadequacy of services for siblings. Siblings are not included in government policies or strategic directions and no one government department takes responsibility for this group of children. Siblings are not routinely included in organisation databases or government data collection, but improved data would make it easier to access siblings to assess their needs. There is a lack of effective and appropriate assessment tools to identify children that may appear to be managing well but who are struggling with a range of issues. There is limited workforce training in sibling support, limited evaluation of the sibling support programs available and a lack of national coordination of sibling support programs and information,” said Dr Kowalenko.
In order for siblings to access the support they need to develop physical wellbeing and mental health the following recommendations are made to government to address the gaps identified:
• Identify avenues where siblings might be included in current policies/strategies
• Identify one existing government department to take a lead role and responsibility for siblings
• Support the development of effective data collection about siblings in conjunction with relevant organisations to estimate numbers and needs of this cohort
• Support the development of quality assessment tools to ensure that at risk siblings access appropriate and relevant interventions. This could be achieved through identifying existing assessment tools on which to build and develop simpler tools
• Support a workforce development program to ensure workers in relevant sectors (not only disability, but also mainstream health, early childhood education and community services) are aware of the needs of siblings and have the skills to identify risk and implement effective interventions
• Support evaluation of identified interventions with families/siblings to ensure best practice
• Establish a national NGO resource centre, to provide a coordinated and collaborative voice for raising awareness of the particular roles and needs of siblings for families, providers and researchers. The resource centre would be a central point, or clearinghouse, for collating information in relation to research and practice as well as a “go to” point for all interested parties.
Link to position statement and report, Addressing the needs of siblings of children with disability or chronic illness:

About The Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists
The Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists (RANZCP) is the principal organisation representing the medical specialty of psychiatry in Australia and New Zealand and has responsibility for training, examining and awarding the qualification of Fellowship of the College to medical practitioners.

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