'Cool kids' has touched the lives of thousands of children worldwide
The work of Distinguished Professor Ron Rapee has helped to improve the mental health of thousands of Australians; his research has also influenced academic research and professional practice throughout the world.
Appointed a Distinguished Professor in 2010, he was the Founding Director of Macquarie’s Centre for Emotional Health established in 2006. The Centre has made a significant contribution to research and professional practice in the area of mental health: its eCentreClinic and MindSpot Clinic are also featured in this book.
As an internationally renowned researcher, and a research leader, Professor Rapee is best known for his pioneering work in the area of children’s mental health. He founded the ‘Cool Kids’ programme in 1995 and the ‘Cool Little Kids’ in 2000 – both with outstanding results.
Professor Rapee’s work began in the early 1980s when he embarked on his PhD. Although he was keen to study alcohol-related health problems, his supervisor steered him a different direction. “He happened to have an article about panic attacks on his desk,” recalls Professor Rapee. “It was 1981, and I was about to start my PhD. I decided to look at panic and general anxiety.”
In particular, he became interested in the underlying causes and mechanisms. He wanted to find out why some people suffer from anxiety throughout their lives, and how they could escape a cycle of despair. Notably, Professor Rapee was entering the field of psychology at a time when it was becoming multi-disciplinary – researchers were drawing on genetics and brain imaging in order to better understand the human brain.
In 1993, he joined Macquarie University and was soon appointed as Professor in the Department of Psychology. Prior to his appointment, he had been working at the University of Queensland on a programme called ‘Coping Koala’ which helped children to develop mental resilience and better coping strategies. At Macquarie, he had the opportunity to improve the formula, making it more efficient and effective.
“Importantly, our programme had a strong emphasis on families and parents,” he explains. “It is skills based: it is teaching kids to manage their anxiety.”
“The core of it is getting kids to face their fears. It’s teaching parents and kids how to structure their lives so that kids can systematically and gradually face the things they are afraid of, but it also has a parent component.”
“The theory behind it is that parents don’t cause but can contribute to the problem in the way they handle their child... we teach them how to help their child build confidence.”
Since it was launched under the ‘Cool Kids’ banner in 1995, the programme has been used to treat more than 1500 children at Macquarie alone, with thousands more accessing its strategies and tools internationally. Now also available via the internet, ‘Cool Kids’ has been translated into nine languages and is used in a number of countries including Canada, the United Kingdom and the United States as well as Australia.
Keen to achieve even greater impact, Professor Rapee went on to develop ‘Cool Little Kids’ which aims to prevent anxiety by working with parents of pre-school-aged children. Launched in 2000, the early intervention programme teaches parents how to handle their toddlers and pre-schoolers in order to build children’s self-confidence. Professor Rapee says the programme works in a similar way to ‘Cool Kids’ by helping parents to teach their children to face their fears in a gradual way.
“Even when kids are one year old you can see the ones who lack confidence – they just run away. We teach the parents to overcome that, to guide against that, by gradually teaching them to help their child to face their fears and build up their confidence,” he says.
“The other part is teaching the parents to be less protective of their child and to back off. Let the child learn their own way and make their own mistakes. Those are the two core components.”
A first trial of the programme followed 140 children and the results were widely published, with significant coverage in national and international media.
“We followed up our first cohort, when they turned 15, and the results were outstanding,” says Professor Rapee. “The girls, whose parents went through this programme when they were four years old, were less likely to be anxious and depressed at the age of 15. It is world-shattering stuff – it hadn’t been shown by anyone else previously.”
Interest in the programme from academics and practitioners throughout the world has increased and results continue to show the programme makes a genuine difference to children’s mental health.
A version of the programme has recently been completed across Melbourne, with hundreds of families benefiting from ‘Cool Little Kids’. These families will be followed up again over the coming years to monitor children’s development and provide vital data for further research.
Although anxiety prevention in children has been a focus of Professor Rapee’s research, he has also played a key role in the development of other research and treatment programmes at Macquarie’s Centre for Emotional Health as its Founding Director.
The Centre’s ‘Ageing Wisely’ programme is the world’s first psychological intervention for older people experiencing a combination of both anxiety and depression. Developed together with Professor Rapee’s colleague, Dr Viviana Wuthrich, the programme is helping older Australians to improve their mental resilience and lead happier, healthier lives.
The Centre has established strong overseas collaborations spanning North America, Europe and Asia and Professor Rapee has been recognised as a leading researcher, globally, in his field of expertise. He is a member of numerous learned societies both in Australia and overseas and has served as a specialist adviser to both academia and government on mental health and emotional disorders.
In 2012, Professor Rapee’s work at Macquarie was honoured when he was appointed a Member of the Order of Australia. His citation recognises his service to the nation and to clinical psychology through “the research and development of treatment programs for anxiety disorders, particularly in children.”
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