Alcohol-related harm in young people

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Dr Melissa O'Donnell from the Telethon Kids Institute, The University of Western Australia, was awarded a Raine Priming Grant (BrightSpark Fellow) in 2017.

Dr Melissa O'Donnell

Telethon Kids Institute, The University of Western Australia

Raine Priming Grant



Dr Melissa O’Donnell is a psychologist and research associate with the Telethon Kids Institute, The University of Western Australia. She was awarded a Raine Priming Grant (BrightSpark Fellow) in 2017 to investigate alcohol-related harm in young people, possible mental health comorbidities, and identify prognostic outcomes and points for early intervention.

This research project aimed to inform alcohol-related harm prevention and early intervention strategies for young people using linked longitudinal individual, family and community level data. Dr O’Donnell specifically sought to identify pathways through the health system for youth presenting with alcohol-related harm or alcohol-related violence. This study found that a higher proportion of Emergency Department (ED) presentations could be identified as alcohol-related when linking to a patient’s subsequent hospitalisation. In particular, patient records where a hospitalisation followed an initial presentation at ED allowed the identification of almost twice as many alcohol-related presentations. This linked data increased the quantity of identified alcohol-related presentations most notably for: males (1.2 times more), 21-24 year-olds (1.4 times more), Aboriginal young people (2.5 times more), the least advantaged young people (1.6 times more), young people living in outer regional areas (5 times more), young people living in remote areas (12 times more), and young people living in very remote areas (26 times more). These results indicate there is a pattern of under-ascertainment in the demographics of young people that are not being identified as alcohol-related in the ED.

They also found that, of the young people who had hospital admissions for alcohol-related harm, 63% had more than one hospitalisation indicating an opportunity for intervention to reduce subsequent hospitalisations. One in every two young people with an alcohol-related contact also had a mental health-related contact. This is an indication of the level of comorbidity of these issues in young people and hence the need to address both in interventions.

As a result of these findings, the research team worked with the ED data custodians and Fiona Stanley Hospital ED to improve the ED data for monitoring of important public health issues such as alcohol-related harm, self-harm/suicide attempts, and domestic violence. Aspects of this research have already translated directly into evidence for policy making and planning, including submissions by WA Police as evidence in response to the coronial enquiry into the 13 deaths of children and young persons in the Kimberley Region in 2019. The indicators of alcohol-related harm born from this research have also been integrated into the Child Development Atlas, a web-based tool that assist researchers, policy makers and the community to utilise research projects and visualised how alcohol-harm and its associated risk factors vary spatially and temporally:

Since the completion of her Raine Priming Grant, Dr O’Donnell has gone on to obtain national funding as an NHMRC Early Career Fellow and is Co-head of the Developmental Pathways and Social Policy research group at Telethon Kids Institute. She continues to supervise a PhD student on the topic of her RPG, building on the work that was conducted through this grant to enable further data analysis and investigation of the potential for points of early intervention and prevention. Dr O’Donnell is now Deputy Director and Associate Professor at the Australian Centre for Child Protection at the University of South Australia. For more information about Dr O’Donnell’s research and career, please visit her university profiles:,’Donnell

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