New Youth Research Program

Risk Factors for Mental Illness

Assoc Prof Melissa Green is leading research to discover how stress-related mechanisms disrupt brain maturation early in life, setting off a cascade of effects which impede normal cognitive and emotional development.

Her research uses neuroscience methods to examine the biological effects of stress among adults with severe mental disorders, as well as complementary methods from epidemiology to understand the mechanisms of mental disorder in developing children.

Victims of early childhood maltreatment are among those at highest risk of developing mental disorders. Prof Green’s newly funded project, conducted in collaboration with the NSW Government Department of Family and Community Services (FACS), will determine dynamic states of ‘risk’ and ‘resilience’ for mental disorders among children who have been maltreated before the age of 5 years.

The first few years of life represent the most rapid period of brain development, with increased plasticity of the brain making it highly sensitive to prolonged stress. Exposure to stress at this stage in the life-course may critically influence brain development in ways which put children at risk of developing mental disorders in later life. The new project was funded by the Australian Rotary Health’s “Mental Health of Young Australians” scheme and is embedded within the NSW Child Development Study (NSW-CDS), led by Prof Vaughan Carr (UNSW and NeuRA).

This study uses repeated waves of longitudinal record linkage to follow a population cohort of approximately 87,000 children as they develop through middle childhood, adolescence, and into young adulthood.

The Rotary funded project will continue to use this routinely collected government data alongside cross-sectional surveys that were administered to the NSW-CDS child cohort at age 5 and 11 years, to determine patterns of ‘risk’ and ‘resilience’ which are evident in childhood competencies or developmental vulnerabilities. Childhood competencies will include social and emotional functioning, as well as cognitive achievements, for which normative skill levels can be determined in the general population.

The team are particularly interested in determining protective factors (e.g., availability of family and school supports) which are associated with ‘resilience’ profiles among maltreated children, in contrast to factors which confer this persistent risk profile across early and middle years of childhood. Findings from the study will be used to make policy recommendations regarding the earliest detection of children at risk of mental disorder, and will determine targets for timely interventions to promote life-long resilience in children who are subjected to early-life adversity.