Until now, child mental health promotion efforts have focused primarily on reducing the prevalence and severity of problems; yet the absence of mental health problems does not necessarily imply the presence of healthy psychosocial functioning. We aimed to investigate the epidemiology of child mental health competence in a full national population of school entrants.Methods
The data source was the 2012 Australian Early Development Index, a national census of early childhood development completed for school entrants by teachers across Australia (n=275 800). The mental health competence outcome measure was derived from constructs that focused on children's social and emotional strengths. Children with mental health competence scores in the top quintile were compared with the standard population across individual and community characteristics.Results
Average age at assessment was 5 years 7 months. Higher odds of mental health competence were observed for children who lived in more advantaged areas (OR 1.62; 99% CI 1.49 to 1.75), had attended preschool (1.38; 1.25 to 1.51) and demonstrated effective oral communication skills in the classroom (19.01; 15.62 to 23.13). Indigenous children had lower odds compared with non-Indigenous children (0.59; 0.54 to 0.64). Children in disadvantaged areas who attended preschool did not ‘catch up’ with their more advantaged peers.Conclusions
Mental health competence is unequally distributed across the Australian child population at school entry and is strongly predicted by measures and correlates of disadvantage. Effective oral communication and attendance at preschool warrant further investigation as potentially modifiable factors that may support mental health competence in new school entrants.