Is there a problem here?

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Traditionally attributed to Mark Twain, there is the old colloquial saying that there are three types of untruths; lies, damned lies and statistics. Whilst the use of data and statistics have been used to support some truly bizarre arguments (for a lesson on the difference between correlation and causation, see this webpage), for the majority of in-depth discussions, they are a valuable source of reliable information.

Unfortunately, the data in relation to mental health in Australia – particularly that related to youth mental health – is now at least 5 years old. To put this in perspective, Facebook had (only!) 100 million users in 2008, which has since increased to 1.27 Billion in the first quarter of 2014 – an increase of over 1000% in 5 years. Released in 2008, this most recent data comes from the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) comes from the 2007 National Survey of Mental Health and Wellbeing. To supplement this data, I have also referenced the Mission Australia Annual Youth Survey from 2013.

So, where do we stand with mental health issues among young people in Australia? Is there a real issue or is Generation Me in the grip of a “narcissism epidemic” as some would have you think?

Here are some sobering statistics from BeyondBlue in relation to Australian youth that I have verified against the raw data:

  • One in 16 young Australians is currently experiencing depression
    Breakdown: One in 16 young Australians (6.3%) currently has an affective disorder.  This is equivalent to 178,000 young people today.
  • One in six young Australians is currently experiencing an anxiety condition
    Breakdown: 15.4% of Australians aged 16 to 24 have experienced an anxiety disorder in the last 12 months.  This is equivalent to 435,000 young people today.
  • One in four young Australians currently has a mental health condition
    Breakdown: 26.4% of Australians aged 16 to 24 currently has a mental disorder.  This figure includes young people with a substance use disorder. This is equivalent to 746,000 young people today.
  • Suicide is the biggest killer of young Australians and accounts for the deaths of more young people than car accidents
    Breakdown: 324 Australians (10.5 per 100,000) aged 15-24 dying by suicide in 2012. This compares to 198 (6.4 per 100,000) who died in car accidents (the second highest killer). 
  • Evidence suggests three in four adult mental health conditions emerge by age 24 and half by age 14
    Breakdown: Half of all lifetime cases of mental health disorders start by age 14 years and three fourths by age 24 years. 
  • Young people are most concerned about coping with stress, school or study problems and body image in that order
    Breakdown: The top issues of concern to young people in 2013 were, in order, coping with stress, school or study problems, body image, depression and family conflict. 
  • Concern about mental health among young people is growing
    Breakdown: 15.2% identified mental health as a major issue facing Australia in 2013, up from 12.7% in 2012 and 10.7% in 2011. 
  • Young people see mental health as a more important issue than things such as the environment, bullying, education and employment
    Breakdown: In 2013, young people saw mental health as a more important issue than things such as the environment, bullying, education and employment. 
  • A quarter of young Australians say they are unhappy with their lives
    Breakdown: In 2013, almost one in four young people (24.3%) said they were sad, very sad or not happy when asked to report how happy they were with their life as a whole. 

(See this link for additional explanations)

It becomes clear when investigating the above statistics right back to their data sources that, if anything, they are a conservative assessment of the current situation among our adolescent and young people. Despite being more ‘connected’ and living during a time of greater economic stability than any other generation at any time, the young people of Australia are reporting greater levels of stress, anxiety, self-harming behaviours and depression. Of particular concern, is a recent comment that I heard during presentation by a very prominent Australian educational-psychologist regarding some of the most recent, unpublished, mental health data; that overall suicide rates among Australian youth are dropping but that the percentage of young women between 15-24 committing suicide has doubled since 2008. Additionally, the percentage of young women (15-24) that are self-harming has also doubled in the same timeframe.

In researching this post I read a ‘Psychology Today’ article suggesting that, at least among affluent American kids, pressure to perform academically from parents and schools, an inability to handle criticism and the compounding effect of 24/7 peer valuations through social media was a key driver behind some of the same stress-related statistics that we see above. My own experience with young adolescents closely resembles these suggestions – that envy, competition and the associated erosion of strong peer relationships has prevented many young people from developing the necessary skills to appropriately handle the inevitable stressors of adolescence.

Having established a foundation of data that supports my perception that adolescent mental health is in need of urgent attention, I will turn my attention to what role – if any – schools can play in supporting our young people and equipping them with the skills necessary to best handle the challenges that the will undoubtedly face.

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