While new ABS data does not indicate that the overall wellbeing of the Australian population is significantly worse, there is concerning elevated risk for our young people, women and those who identify as LGBTIQA+.
Today’s release of the National Study of Mental Health and Wellbeing 2020-21 is welcomed. The last time such a study was undertaken was in 2007. While the data indicates that the general patterns reported in the 2020-21 study are broadly consistent with the 2007 findings, with lifetime and 12-month mental disorder rates at similar levels, there is cause for concern for some population groups that are at elevated risk.
Commission Chair, Mrs Lucy Brogden AM said that the data highlights areas that require immediate action and significant improvement.
"Australians would have hoped to see an improvement in outcomes for those experiencing psychological distress and who have a diagnosis of mental illness, that is not the case. More needs to be done in prevention, early intervention, the social determinants of good health and wellbeing and treatment. Of particular concern are those population groups where the data shows elevated incidence since 2007. These groups include women, especially young women, youth in general, and members of the LGBTIQA+ communities.”
The data shows that women are disproportionately impacted by mental disorders across the whole of their lives, particularly young women. In comparison to men, women are at higher risk of binge eating, anxiety disorders, affective disorders, self-harm, and suicidal thoughts and behaviours.
“The lack of gender equity, violence against women and their children, wage inequality and female poverty, are all factors affecting women and girls’ mental wellbeing. It is essential for public, private and government sectors to continue to focus on rectifying gender disparities, including stigma and discrimination, violence against women and children, and safety of women in the workplace”
The data on the wellbeing of young people aligns with Commission findings and remains deeply concerning. There has been a striking increase in the prevalence of mental illness in young people aged 16-24, particularly in terms of anxiety, affective disorders, self-harm, suicidal thoughts and behaviours. Whilst a direct comparison to the 2007 data is not possible, the Commission is very concerned that the situation for young people appears, in fact, to be deteriorating.
“The Commission is continuing its work with experts to deepen its understanding of what is causing this disturbing trend and to identify ways in which it can be addressed and reversed. We know that young people are doing it particularly tough and this data adds to the picture,” Mrs Lucy Brogden AM said.
The Commission’s National Children’s Mental Health and Wellbeing Strategy amplifies the need for prevention and that early intervention in a child’s life, including for those who love and care for them, is the most effective way to prevent and reduce the impacts of lifetime metal ill health and psychological distress.
The data also shows that people who identify as Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual or who use a different term such as Asexual, Pansexual or Queer are more than 2.5 times more likely to experience a mental illness in a twelve-month period compared to those who identify as heterosexual.
Commission CEO Christine Morgan said the Commission’s work on the National Stigma and Discrimination Reduction Strategy will be an important national response to the structural stigma and discrimination embedded within systems and services causing, responding to, and exacerbating mental health challenges for LGBTIQA+ individuals. However, she said:
“There is urgent need to continue work to reduce the chronically high rates of mental ill health for these population groups and provide safe and culturally sensitive mainstream as well as community-based options for the LGBTIQA+ communities across all parts of Australia.”
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities
She also noted the release does not include data on the mental health status or mental health conditions of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders.
“While the Commission recognises the immense value of the ongoing work of the Australian Government on the design of culturally appropriate data collection instruments for mental health for use in the upcoming National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Survey, the Commission would like to see a broader inclusion of Indigenous Australians in all areas of mainstream Australian Government activity. “
Suicidal thoughts and actions
The survey shows one in six Australian adults have experienced thoughts about suicide or engaged in suicide behaviours at some point in their life, with thoughts of suicide being experienced more commonly than planning or attempting suicide. This is consistent with what is found internationally[i], with thoughts of suicide being more common than most people expect.
Newly appointed Head of the National Suicide Prevention Office, Dr Michael Gardner said:
“While thoughts of suicide and suicidal behaviours increase the risk of suicide, those who do not act during the first year – potentially as a result of having sought help - are less likely to attempt suicide despite continuing thoughts. This highlights the need for improved upstream data and early intervention. Services must be able to rapidly identify people experiencing suicidal ideation and to provide early support and care in order to reduce the number of lives lost to suicide.”
The survey also shows that two in five people have been impacted by suicide through bereavement or as a carer. People impacted in this way can be at increased risk of suicide themselves unless they are connected to bereavement and postvention supports. The Commission and National Suicide Prevention Office welcomes the Federal and State and Territory Governments strong commitment to expanding postvention supports.
“The newly established National Suicide Prevention Office is working with governments to ensure that the suicide rates continue to decline,” said Dr Gardner.
Ms Morgan acknowledges all who took part in the survey and their contribution to mental health and suicide prevention reform.
“Let’s not forget that it is those who have courageously shared the reality of their experience that have provided us with these results. They have highlighted the critical need for ongoing investment in data collection to expand our knowledge of populations disproportionately impacted. They are calling for us to deliver tailored, comprehensive and effective care to support mental health and wellbeing. Data linking and sharing across governments and government agencies is essential to enhance our ability to measure the wellbeing of Australians and invest proactively to address the social determinants of mental ill health.”
“We are truly grateful to every person who has taken the time to share your very personal experience, and we acknowledge the commitment you have made to improving outcomes for our communities in future.”
To access the Survey data: https://www.abs.gov.au/statistics/health/mental-health/national-study-mental-health-and-wellbeing
[i] Nock MK, et al. (2008) Cross-national prevalence and risk factors for suicidal ideation, plans and attempts. Br J Psychiatry. 192(2):98-105. doi: 10.1192/bjp.bp.107.040113.