Mental health disorders in young Australians surge by 47 per cent over 15 years, new data shows

Mental health disorders in young Australians surge by 47 per cent over 15 years, new data shows
  • PublishedOctober 6, 2023

The latest data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) shows nearly 40 per cent of young Australians aged 16 to 24 — more than 1 million people — experienced a mental health disorder in the previous year, up from 26 per cent in 2007. 

This year’s figures show young women were particularly affected, with nearly half (45.5 per cent) experiencing a mental health condition in the previous year, up from 30.1 per cent in 2007. 

That was compared to one third of young men (32.4 per cent) up from in 22.8 per cent in 2007. 

Anxiety disorders were the most common condition, experienced by two in five young women and one in four young men. 

Angelo Virgona, from the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists, said COVID-19 had been a major trigger for young people. 

“Isolation [has been] a major factor in the development of anxiety and depressive problems,” he said. 

Australia’s deputy chief medical officer for mental health, Ruth Vine, said social media also played a role. 

“Those forms that include denigrating comments about self-image or repetitive, denigrating comments about individuals can be very damaging,” she said. 

The ABS carried out the survey between 2020 and 2022. 

Overall, the study of 16,000 Australians showed more than a fifth of Australians aged 16 to 85 had experienced a mental health disorder in the previous 12 months. 

The most common were anxiety disorders — such as post-traumatic stress disorder — which had affected 17.2 per cent of Australians, and mood disorders like depression, which affected 7.5 per cent of the population. 

Dr Virgona said uncertainties about the economy, climate and life in general were all negatively impacting mental health. 

“There’s instability across the world and I think people feel that,” he said. 

Perth GP Andrew Leech said he had also witnessed a spike in anxiety and depression since COVID-19 lockdowns and the cost-of-living crisis, along with associated trauma and family separations. 

“I’m seeing a lot of difficulties around burnout and fatigue and being overstressed and overworked,” he said. 

More people seeking help, but system ‘not coping’ 

However, the figures showed nearly half the people who had a mental health disorder (45.1 per cent) saw a health professional to manage their condition, up from 12 per cent in 2007. 

Dr Leech said he was regularly having some of his most serious cases rejected by psychiatrists when he referred them for help and said they effectively “bounce back” to his office. 

He said the specialists frequently refused patients because they didn’t specialise in their condition — and that could be anxiety, depressions, eating disorders, ADHD, autism, personality disorders, trauma or recent suicide attempts. 

A young white doctor with short brown hair standing in front of an indoor garden
Andrew Leech says he’s seen a spike in mental health concerns from young people.(ABC News: Jack Stevenson)

Many would not treat older teens and some refused patients who had a history of suicide attempts or were at risk. 

“It feels quite isolating when it’s just me and the patient. I feel really helpless,” he said. 

“It’s a worry because these problems are escalating, but the support networks out there are not increasing with that demand. 

“The mental health system’s not coping.”

Dr Virgona said psychiatrists were having difficulties getting suicidal patients into public hospitals, which were also overloaded.

He estimated at least another thousand psychiatrists were needed nationally, with a focus on under-served rural and regional areas.

“The GPs are having trouble with us. We’re having trouble as well,” he said. 

“People are getting increasingly complex, more severe disorders presenting to them meaning the psychiatrists books get filled up.” 

Sexual orientation and gender identity 

For the first time, the ABS survey factored in sexual orientation and gender identity. 

People who described themselves as gay, lesbian, or bisexual had nearly three times the rate of mental health disorders at 58.7 per cent compared to their heterosexual counterparts at 19.9 per cent. 

One in three transgender people reported a mental health disorder within a 12-month span compared with one in five cisgender people. 

Dr Vine said this may come as a surprise to some. 

“I think it’s surprising because I think we’d like to think of ourselves as a much more inclusive, accepting, tolerant society,” she said.

Looking at new therapies 

Thirteen-year-old Ashleigh Newton and 14-year-old Lilli Sheppard understand the pressures of being young women. 

“I feel really frustrated. And I put my anger on other people. But I try to stop myself from that.  

Ms Sheppard said it can detract from her studies. 

“When I get stressed, I … get headaches. You just don’t want to go to school,” she said. 

They’re among those increasingly turning to alternative therapies to look after their mental health.  

Normally that includes exercise and walks. 

Dr Sarah Brikke stands in a forest alongside four otherrs, with their eyes closed.
Forest therapy is a practice that aims to boost someone’s mood by immersing them in nature.(ABC News: Ron Foley)

Today they’re trying something new: forest therapy, a public heath practice developed in Japan which aims to reduce stress and blood pressure by immersing your senses in nature. 

Founder Sarah Brikke experienced anxiety and depression when she was younger and found that being in nature helped her cope and improve her mental health. 

Now she takes people on guided walks through the bush where she helps them reconnect with the environment using mindfulness and meditation techniques. 

“Research shows that by being in nature, by spending time in the forest, people reduce their cortisol levels so that our stress levels [decrease], people slept better,” Ms Brikke said.

SOURCE: ABCNEWS

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