A new joint report by Mission Australia and Black Dog Institute reveals that substantially more young people in Australia are experiencing psychological distress than in 2012. The report also reveals that young people had higher odds of experiencing psychological distress if they identified as female, non-binary, living with disability, or as Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander.

One in four young people in 2020 said they are experiencing mental health challenges; a significant increase since 2012 when one in five young people were facing similar concerns.

The Psychological distress in young people in Australia fifth biennial youth mental health report: 2012-2020 explores Mission Australia’s Youth Survey findings – and is co-authored with Black Dog Institute experts – to better understand the prevalence and experiences of psychological distress faced by 15-19 year-olds in Australia.

The report explores how young people with mental health challenges think, feel and act by looking at the responses of 25,103 young people who answered the question measuring psychological distress in 2020. It also looks at their help-seeking behaviours – pinpointing the important role that friends, parents, services, schools and the internet and apps play as sources of support for young people who are experiencing psychological distress.

The findings have spurred Mission Australia and the Black Dog Institute to call for more action from governments, schools, families, businesses and others to prioritise tailored, timely and accessible mental health support, in an effort to reduce the prevalence of mental ill-health among young people in Australia.

In response to the report’s findings, Mission Australia’s CEO James Toomey said: “With the prevalence of psychological distress experienced by young people increasing, this report warrants attention and swift action.

Undoubtedly, COVID-19 has had a detrimental impact on many young people’s mental health. Youth mental health is an important national challenge that must be addressed.

“We all have a duty to safeguard young people’s wellbeing and properly support the enormous number of young people contending with mental health challenges. Every young person in Australia should have access to appropriate supports at the time they need it, regardless of their gender, location, background or any other circumstances, and most definitely under special circumstances like a global pandemic. A key part of this includes further investment in evidence-based digital mental health services.

“Importantly, young people must be central to the co-design, development and adaptation of youth mental health services and tools – both at school and within their communities.”

Black Dog Institute’s Director of Research, Professor Jennie Hudson said: “Global research tells us that over 75% of mental health issues develop before the age of 25, and these can have lifelong consequences.

“We are still in the dark as to why mental health and suicide risk has increased in our current cohort of youth, a finding that is not unique to Australia.

“Early intervention in adolescence and childhood is imperative to help reduce these figures. This report shows that young people in distress will seek help directly from friends, parents and the internet. As such, we need to continue to build gatekeeper support training and provide online and app-based tools that may be a key part of the solution - something we are invested in doing at the Black Dog Institute.”

Key findings include:

  • More than one in four young people met the criteria for experiencing psychological distress – an increase of 8% since 2012 (18.6% in 2012 vs. 26.6% in 2020).
  • Since 2012, females were twice as likely as males to experience psychological distress. The increase in psychological distress has also been far more marked among females (22.4% in 2012 to 34.1% in 2020 for females, while males went from 12.6% in 2012 to 15.3% in 2020).
  • In 2020, more than half (55.7%) of non-binary young people experienced psychological distress, more than two in five (43.0%) young people with disability faced psychological distress and more than one in three (34.0%) of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander young people met the criteria for psychological distress.
  • Scared/anxious to get help, feeling embarrassed and/or feeling I can deal with it myself were the three most commonly cited barriers that prevent young people from seeking help.
  • Young people experiencing psychological distress reported they would go to friend/s, parent/s or guardian/s and the internet as their top three sources for help. Young people with psychological distress were more likely to use mobile apps or go to social media for support than their non-psychologically distressed peers.
  • The top issues of personal concern for young people in Australia experiencing psychological distress were: coping with stress, mental health and body image. There was also notably higher levels of concern about other issues including school or study problems, family conflict, bullying/emotional abuse, physical health, personal safety and suicide, when compared with young people without psychological distress.
  • More than five times the proportion of young people with psychological distress reported concerns about suicide (31.1% compared with 6.0% of respondents without psychological distress).
  • Young people with psychological distress were twice as likely to report being treated unfairly in the past year compared to respondents without psychological distress (45.4% vs. 20.4%), with the top reasons for unfair treatment being gender, mental health and sexuality.
  • Young people with psychological distress were almost three times as likely to report they were getting six hours or less of sleep per night and two times as likely to report they were doing no exercise.

Read the report

Mission Australia Youth Survey Report 2020

Mission Australia Youth Survey 2020 Infographic

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