Deakin University’s Centre for Social and Early Emotional Development (SEED) has been conducting world-leading research on social and emotional development from early childhood to young adulthood since 2016.  

In 2023, we are extending the focus from the first 10,000 days of a person’s life to the entire lifespan: from cradle to grave.  

Our extended focus will be on understanding how a young person’s early life experiences shape the length and quality of their life.  

World-leading psychology research on early social and emotional development 

Since 2016, SEED has conducted world-leading research on social development and its origins in early emotional life. 

‘We’re one of the few developmental schools of psychology in Australia,’ says Director of SEED, Alfred Deakin Professor Craig Olsson.  

We have attracted $36.7M in external funding. Our team has published over 2500 peer-reviewed articles that have been cited over 60,000 times in the scientific literature, and in over 400 policy documents around the world.  

We have brought together lifecourse, clinical and public mental health research and practice to describe the major milestones in the first 10,000 days of a person’s life. We work to prevent mental health problems and promote emotional wellbeing. 

‘Our first aim is to address the rising rates of mental health problems in young populations,’ Prof. Olsson says.  

‘Our second aim is to understand how to raise globally aware and resilient young people who are capable of tackling the big issues of our time, including widening global inequality and the threat of climate change.’ 

Our team consists of more than 150 researchers. We are clinical and counselling psychologists, developmental psychology researchers, child health researchers and epidemiologists, neuroscientists and data scientists. 

We have partnerships with key health service providers in rural and regional Victoria, including place-based intervention programs in the Greater Shepparton, Greater Bendigo and North Central Victoria areas. We have active collaborations with the Victorian Government Department of Education and Training, and a long-standing industry engagement with Australian Unity (est. 2000). 

Our new focus: Wellbeing from cradle to grave 

We have ambitious plans for SEED’s future. We are transforming our focus on studying and supporting early social and emotional development to a focus on the entire lifespan – from cradle to grave. 

‘This is the biggest single development of this research centre since we commenced in 2016,’ says Prof. Olsson.  

We know that mental health is intergenerational – meaning that experiences well before becoming a parent can have profound effects on the health and development of the next generation. 

We also know that mental health is multigenerational – meaning that the health of any one generation in profoundly impacted by the health of every other generation. 

A young child is supported by their parents, who in turn are supported by the child’s grandparents. But aging adds pressure to this family unit. Parents bear the responsibility for caring for their children and their aging parents, while also maintaining the economic stability of the family unit and taking on leadership roles in the community. 

‘Not surprisingly, rates of mental disorder, including addictions and suicide, peak in midlife, and wellbeing is at its lowest point at this point in the lifecourse,’ Prof. Olsson says. 

Yet little is known about mental health in middle adult life. Similarly, little is known about how people adapt to the increasing losses that are part of the aging process.  

Life expectancies have increased substantially over the past century. But are these additional years lived in good mental and physical health?  In Australia, levels of chronic physical and mental disability have increased in our aging populations. 

‘I would like to see a future where everyone quite comfortably gets to their 100th birthday and is still quite healthy,’ Prof. Olsson says. 

To achieve this vision, SEED will expand its research program to include studies into the developmental origins of aging.  

Currently, most research on human aging is conducted in older populations. In contrast, we want to understand how people’s early life experiences shape the trajectory of the second half of their lives. Genetics will play a huge role in how each of us ages, but what about psychological, social and other contextual factors? 

‘Does trauma accelerate aging? Does trauma lead to disease? If so, how?’ asks Prof. Olsson, outlining key research questions that SEED will focus on in coming years. 

Ultimately, SEED’s aim is to reduce the number of Australians living with mental disorders. 

‘Without a common narrative that makes sense of emotional experiences, and that can offer timely supports around emotional challenge, the capacity for adaptation – in any developmental period – is diminished and mental health disorders emerge as a result,’ Prof. Olsson says. 

How SEED Lifespan will study mental health and human development 

‘The decision to extend our research vision comes from an audit of the mental health research literature that shows a clear lack of integrated developmental data on the natural history of mental health and disorder across the lifespan,’ says Prof. Olsson. 

We plan to fill this gap. 

SEED’s longitudinal cohort studies and intervention studies will expand to include older adults. Key to this expansion is the Australian Temperament Project, one of Australia’s longest-running population-based cohort studies of social and emotional development. The cohort is now tracking three interlinked generations that have been followed across 40 years since 1983. 

We will create added capabilities in our research centre for the measuring and monitoring of pace-of-aging. In particular, we plan to expand our Comprehensive Monitoring System to monitor determinants of positive aging in populations. 

Work in our data sciences research theme and systematic review hub will also expand with a broader focus across the whole lifecourse. 

‘It was always our intention to study mental health and development across the entire human lifespan,’ says Prof. Olsson. 

‘Our team has now grown to a point where this lifespan vision has become a possibility. I look forward to working together with SEED research leaders to steer us in this bold new direction.’