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Psychological distress in young people in Australia

Fifth biennial youth mental health report: 2012-2020
Child mental health Mental health Youth Australia

This report, by Mission Australia and the 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.

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.

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.
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