The first national study of its kind in more than a decade has found almost half of all young women in Australia suffered an anxiety, depression or substance abuse disorder last financial year.
For males in the same age bracket (16 to 24), it was about one in three.
Dr Ruth Vine, the federal government’s deputy chief medical officer for mental health, said the levels of distress in young people, especially anxiety, was “puzzling people around the world”, and that it pre-dated Covid.
Social media could be harmful for vulnerable young people, she said, because it might drive them to focus on their body image. But global concerns were also a factor.
“It’s something happening in many countries at the moment,” she said. “And it’s clearly a major concern for mental health reform and service planning.”
Almost 45% of people who identified as LGBTI or pansexual or asexual had an anxiety disorder.
The Australian Bureau of Statistics’ latest National Study of Mental Health and Wellbeing, released on Friday, found more than four in 10 Australians aged 16 to 85 have had a mental disorder during their lifetime, and one in six has had suicidal thoughts or behaviours.
The previous study, released in 2007, found 45% of people aged 16 to 85 had a mental disorder at some point in their lives – slightly higher than the 43.7% in 2020-2021.
Data for the most recent study was collected during the pandemic, from December 2020 to July 2021.
The ABS said the numbers are “not comparable” with the 2022 figures, because the criteria for various disorders have changed, and the pandemic makes this a very different time from 2007. More detailed analysis will be released next year, and will do more comparisons.
Other studies which cover the same time period have shown an increase in self-reported mental health conditions, particularly among young people.
Vine said it was important to remember that, while the data is critical, “what we’re talking about is people”, and that there is help available.
“Many of us – all of us, probably – know a person who has experienced mental ill health, and many of us will know a person who’s struggled, and a person who has recovered and even … grown in some ways through that experience,” she said.
Mindframe’s Dr Elizabeth Paton said it was important to add a human perspective to the data, and to listen to people with lived experience of mental health disorders.
“It can help to understand what these experiences are actually like in real life,” she said.
“And compared to just numbers, that can help our communities actually understand what mental illness is like and to help reduce stigma.”
The 2021 census data, released last month, found more than 2.2 million Australians suffer long-term mental health issues. It found young people were particularly affected, with one in five suffering “psychological distress” – more than twice the rate for those aged 65 to 85.
A study of young people during the pandemic, from the Australian National University, found they lost more life satisfaction than any other age group.
The ABS head of health and disability statistics, Linda Fardell, said that the latest data showedabout one in five people experienced a mental disorder in the 12 months prior to the study, with anxiety the most common. Anxiety was the most common disorder in those who ever experienced a mental disorder.
Women had higher rates of anxiety and depressive disorders, while men had almost twice the rate of substance use disorders.
“At the national level, the study shows that 43.7% (8.6 million) of Australians aged between 16 and 85 have experienced a mental disorder at some time in their life,” she said.
“16.8% of all Australians had an anxiety disorder, 7.5% had an affective disorder such as depression, while 3.3% had a substance use disorder.”
15.5% of people reported feeling lonely in the past four weeks.
Fardell said fewer than half those suffering a mental disorder in 2020-21 (47.1%) sought help from a professional, and 4.4% accessed digital services. Women were more likely to seek help than men.
The ABS said mental ill health does not define a person. “We acknowledge that people are living productive, purposeful and meaningful lives with mental ill health,” it said in a statement.
“We acknowledge their unique experiences, and those of carers, families and supporters of people living with mental ill health.”
In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is 13 11 14. In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. In the UK, Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123. Other international suicide helplines can be found at befrienders.org
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