Mental health disorders among young people have increased by more than 50 per cent in 15 years, new data shows, as experts warn the health system is struggling to cope with growing complexity and demand.
- Forty percent of 16 to 24 year olds reported experiencing a mental health disorder between 2020 and 2022
- Significantly more people are seeking help for mental health reasons compared to 2007
- Members of the LGBTQI+ community reported significantly higher rates of mental health disorders
Content Warning: The following story contains references to suicide.
Latest data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) shows that almost 40 percent of young Australians aged 16 to 24, or more than a million people, have experienced a mental health disorder over the past year. the previous year, compared to 26 percent in 2007.
This year’s figures show that young women have been particularly affected, with almost half (45.5 per cent) having suffered from a mental health problem in the previous year, compared to 30.1 per cent in 2007.
This was compared to a third of young men (32.4 percent), up from 22.8 percent 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 depression issues,” he said.
Australia’s deputy chief medical officer for mental health, Ruth Vine, said social media also played a role.
“Forms that include denigrating comments about self-image or repetitive, denigrating comments about individuals can be very harmful,” 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 suffered from a mental health disorder in the previous twelve months.
The most common were anxiety disorders – such as post-traumatic stress disorder – which affected 17.2 per cent of Australians, and mood disorders such as depression, which affected 7.5 per cent of the population.
Dr Virgona said uncertainties about the economy, climate and life in general were all having a negative impact on mental health.
“There is instability all over the world and I think people feel it,” he said.
Perth GP Andrew Leech said he had also seen an increase in anxiety and depression since the COVID-19 lockdowns and cost of living crisis, as well as the trauma and associated family separations.
“I see a lot of challenges with burnout, fatigue, stress and overwork,” he said.
More and more people are asking for help, but the system is “not coping”
However, figures show that almost half of people with a mental health disorder (45.1 per cent) have seen a healthcare professional to manage their condition, up from 12 per cent in 2007.
Dr Leech said some of his most serious cases were routinely rejected by psychiatrists when he sent them for help and said they actually “bounced” back to his practice.
He said specialists often turn away patients because they don’t specialize in their illness – and that could be anxiety, depression, eating disorders, ADHD, autism, personality disorders, trauma or recent suicide attempts.
Many did not want to treat older adolescents, and some refused patients with a history of suicide attempts or who were at risk.
“It’s quite isolating when it’s just me and the patient. I feel really helpless,” he said.
“It’s concerning because these problems are getting worse, but the support networks are not growing with this demand.
“The mental health system is not coping.”
Dr Virgona said psychiatrists had difficulty getting suicidal patients to public hospitals, which were also overloaded.
He estimated that at least a thousand more psychiatrists were needed nationally, with an emphasis on underserved rural and regional areas.
“GPs have problems with us. We have problems too,” he said.
“People are facing increasingly complex and serious disorders, which means psychiatrists’ books are filling up.”
Sexual orientation and gender identity
For the first time, the ABS survey took into account sexual orientation and gender identity.
People who described themselves as gay, lesbian or bisexual had nearly three times the rate of mental health disorders, 58.7 percent, compared to their heterosexual counterparts, 19.9 percent.
One in three transgender people reported a mental health disorder within 12 months, compared to one in five cisgender people.
Dr Vine said this might surprise some.
“I think it’s surprising because I think we would like to think of ourselves as a much more inclusive, tolerant and tolerant society,” she said.
In search of new therapies
Ashleigh Newton, 13, and Lilli Sheppard, 14, understand the pressure of being a young woman.
“I feel really frustrated. And I take my anger out on other people. But I try not to.
Ms Sheppard said it could harm her studies.
“When I’m stressed, I get… headaches. You just don’t want to go to school,” she said.
They are among those who are increasingly turning to alternative therapies to treat their mental health.
Normally this includes exercise and walks.
Now they’re trying something new: forest therapy, a public health practice developed in Japan that aims to reduce stress and blood pressure by immersing your senses in nature.
Founder Sarah Brikke suffered from anxiety and depression when she was younger and found that being in nature helped her cope and improve her mental health.
Today 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, spending time in the forest, people reduce their cortisol levels, so as our stress levels (decrease), people sleep better,” Ms Brikke said.