Common mental health disorders affecting young Australians



Mental illnesses continue to be the third leading cause of disability burden in Australia despite vast improvements to treatment access and uptake. Approximately 45% of Australians aged 16-85 years will experience a mental disorder during their lifetime, with research suggesting that 75% of mental health illnesses emerge before the age of 25. Mental health is the number one health issue facing young Australians and this report provides a summary of the current statistics for mental health issues in this age group.

Common mental health disorders in young people

The National Survey of Mental Health and Wellbeing (NSMHWB) 2007 provided estimates of the prevalence of mental health disorders in the Australian population for an estimated two and a half million Australians aged 16 to 24. The results of this survey showed that one in four (26.4%) young Australians aged 16 to 24 experienced at least one mental health disorder in the last 12 months. The leading cause of disease burden in mental health issues for young people are anxiety, depression and substance use. In the preceding 12 months, one in six young people (15.4%) experienced an anxiety condition, one in 16 (6.3%) experienced an affective disorder, most commonly a depressive episode, and almost one in eight (12.7%) were affected by substance use disorders.


Differences with gender

Females were more likely than males to have experienced a mental disorder in the last 12 months (30.1% and 22.8% respectively). In particular, females were twice as likely to experience anxiety disorders than males (21.7% and 9.3% respectively) as well as affective disorders (8.4% and 4.3% respectively). The most prevalent types of anxiety condition were post-traumatic stress disorder and social phobia, accounting for 50% and 35% of the experienced anxiety disorders respectively.

On the contrary, males were more likely to suffer from substance use disorders than females (15.5% compared to 9.8% respectively), with the harmful use of alcohol accounting for almost 1/3 of all substance use disorders.


Personal psychological distress and concerns

The NSMHWB 2007 survey also indicated that 9% of young people aged 16-24 years had high or very high levels of psychological distress as measured by the Kessler 10 (K10) scale, a 10-item questionnaire covering feelings of nervousness, hopelessness, restlessness, depression and worthlessness. High K10 scores were more prevalent among those young people who had been diagnosed with a mental disorder compared to those who reported no mental disorder (21% and 4% respectively).


According to research from Mission Australia annual Youth Survey 2016, which had nearly 22,000 respondents making it the largest survey of its kind, for the first time in 15 years mental health concerns were listed in the top 3 issues facing Australia today. In addition, concerns over mental health having doubled since 2011. Since 2013 the top three issues of personal concern have consistently been (in descending order): coping with stress, school or study problems and body image, with mental health also being increasingly identified as a personal concern. The fact that mental health concerns have risen so dramatically and that issues of personal concern have not changed since 2013 suggests that more effort and resources are required to tackle these issues.


Suicide rates

An additional report from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) also suggested that young people aged 12-24 continue to have a high rate of mental disorders. They are also at risk of experiencing stigma related to their mental disorder, with poor mental health in young people being a precursor to self-harm, suicidal thoughts and suicide itself. Suicide is the leading cause of death among young Australians aged 15 to 24, accounting for 31% of all deaths in this age group. In addition, Aboriginal and Torres Strait young people are four times as likely to die from suicide, and young people living in remote areas have higher overall death rates and are less likely to access GPs.


One participant in the Mission Australia Youth Survey 2016 quoted:


I am concerned about mental health in rural areas, particularly suicide. I think there needs to be more help … particularly low cost or free help”.Female, 17, SA


Getting help

The NSMHWB 2007 survey also found that young people aged 16 to 24 were less likely to access mental health services compared to other age groups, with only 23% doing so compared to 38% of people aged 25 years and over. This is concerning considering the link between poor mental health and suicide rates in young people and indicates that further intervention is needed. The Australian government has been investing into improvements to mental health services including youth mental health services such as ‘headspace‘ which provides early intervention for mental health issues and promotes wellbeing in 12-25 year olds. Although a step forward, the mental health of the young Australian population must still continue to be a priority.


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