Our Youth & Mental Health

The Youth Mental Health Climate The average high school student today has the same level of anxiety as the average psychiatric patient in the 1950’s and the number of young people experiencing probable mental illness appears to be rising. Recent findings from Mission Australia (2017) show that just under 1 in 4 young Australians aged […]

The Youth Mental Health Climate

The average high school student today has the same level of anxiety as the average psychiatric patient in the 1950’s and the number of young people experiencing probable mental illness appears to be rising.

Recent findings from Mission Australia (2017) show that just under 1 in 4 young Australians aged 14 – 19 experience a probable serious mental illness and this also appears to be on an upwards trend (rising from 18.7% in 2012 to 22.8% in 2016).

The report indicates that there is a positive correlation between age and likelihood of probable serious mental illness. That is, the probability of having a mental illness rises with age. In fact, the findings show that the proportion of young people meeting the criteria for having a probable serious mental illness rose from 20.8% among 15 year olds to 27.4% among 18/19 year olds.

Probable Serious Mental Illness by Age, 2012 – 2016

Mission Australia Youth Mental Health Report 2012 – 16

What Are Young People Worrying About?

The Mission Australia survey compiled data on 12 issues of concern for young people. The reported top 5 concerns were:

  • Coping with stress
  • School or study problems
  • Depression
  • Body image
  • Family conflict

Comparative data between genders indicates that females are more concerned about the top 5 issues that males. However, males were more concerned about issues around Drugs and discrimination than females.

Young people aged 15-19 with a probable serious mental illness who were ‘very’ or ‘extremely’ concerned about issues, by gender, 2016

Mission Australia Youth Mental Health Report 2012 – 16

Why the Increase?

There is much speculation as to why there has been an increase in reported mental illness. Robert Leahy, a clinical professor of psychology and author on topics of anxiety suggests that a decline in social connectedness could be one factor contributing to an increase in worrying.

Additionally, VicHealth have reported on the impact of the Rising Bar on youth mental health. That is, “a rise in skill and education levels in emerging economies and increased automation leading to a more competitive, global job market”. Despite there being more pathway opportunities for young people there also appears to be a higher demand on them to stay in school, do well on exams and obtain tertiary qualifications.

Reports on Megatrends by VicHealth indicate that future entry into the labour force may be more competitive and demanding of higher standards, leading to:

  • Increased number of young job seekers in Victoria
  • The rise of non-standard, portfolio work
  • Growth in higher-skilled occupations
  • Global competition for talent
  • Science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) disciplines in demand
  • Need for balance between cognitive, social and emotional skills.

Childhood and “Play”

Another explanation for why anxiety and other mental illnesses appear to be on the rise may be found in child rearing practices. Peter Gray, a professor at Boston College writes that the decline in “children’s freedom to play and explore on their own, independent of direct adult guidance” in recent decades may contribute to an increase in mental illness.

The lack of autonomy during play prevents a child from developing a good sense of control over their own lives, and this can be reflected in the anxiety we see in adolescents and fear of not having control over their stress, schooling and future.

Looking Ahead

Further research is required in order to gain a better understanding on why youth mental illness is rising. However, many experts in psychology agree on some of the following recommendations.

  • Schools should provide evidenced-based universal mental health prevention and intervention programs.
  • Friends and parents need to be equipped to provide support young people with mental health.
  • Children and young adults need to engage in physical and valued activities on a regular basis.
  • A good, well-balanced diet is important for healthy development.

As Schools begin to adopt better forms of health promotion and well-being support, it can be envisioned that they will take on a larger community role in supporting parents and families on addressing mental health concerns.

About the Author –

Jarred is a counsellor and registered teacher who coordinates a well-being program at an Australian high school. He is also an education well-being consultant at Peiris Consulting.

Jarred Kellerman
BPsych, GradDipEd, MCounselling

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