Youth mental health and the impact on Australia’s economy
Young people increasingly rate mental health and wellbeing as a high concern and priority for Australia.
It is a growing problem. The 2018 Mission Australia Youth Survey, released last week, surveyed 28,000 young people nationally and revealed that there has been a 10% increase in concern around mental health in the past year. Almost half of young people (43%) identify mental health as a top issue facing Australia today; double the 2016 rate.
So why is mental health a priority issue for young people?
Mental health is indiscriminate. It can impact anyone regardless of employment status, age or education. It is not restricted to gender, geography, social or cultural background. Mental health is a commonly shared experience with around 45% of Australians aged between 16 and 85 experiencing mental health in their life, and one in five Australian adults experiencing a mental illness in any given year.
Yet more than 75% of mental health disorders begin before the age of 25. This indicates that while it may not be limited in reach, mental health often stems from our earlier lives and therefore prevention for mental health issues in Australia should focus on young people.
The National Mental Health Commission says mental health investment needs to start at birth until 12 years old. This comes after the Australian Research Alliance for Children and Youth (ARACY) report signalled increased levels of ‘high’ or ‘very high’ psychological distress amongst 18-24 year olds and suicide rates amongst 15-25 year olds.
For young Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders aged 15-19, one third have problems with mental health and they are over three times more likely to commit suicide than non-Indigenous youth.
For regional and rural young people, research shows the risk of suicide rises the further young people are from cities. The rate of deaths by suicide is almost three times higher for those living in remote and very remote areas compared to those living in major cities. Some 29.9% of young people say financial issues are the major source of stress or worry, with 21.2% citing school or study and 15.2% citing thinking about the future.
For young people studying or training at university or TAFE, mental health issues are highly prevalent. The 2016 National Tertiary Student Wellbeing Survey found that 64.2% of young people aged 16-25 describe academic experiences as ‘very’ or ‘extremely’ stressful. One in ten young people said it was very difficult to meet daily needs due to their income. 82.4% earn less that $400 a week, with young women rating higher than men in levels of financial stress. 35.4% of students reported that thoughts of self-harm or suicide affected their studies.
Mental health is connected to many parts of our lives such as finance, housing, education and employment. As each of these transform alongside economic shifts and policy changes, so does the risk of higher levels of mental health issues among young people.
The cost of mental health on Australia’s economy:
The federal government earlier this year announced $9 million boost in funding for youth mental health, but the bill doesn’t stop there.
If young people are prone to mental health issues, this can inhibit their transition from schooling to work. It can make finding a job difficult, but it can also impact how present a young person is at work. People living with mental health issues may be more prone to use their sick leave for mental health days or may be reliant on mental health services for support throughout their working lives.
This creates a flow on effect by impacting the costs for businesses, organisations, and government that cover the costs of workers with high levels of absenteeism, or low levels of productivity and workplace loyalty, or mental health services providers.
The role meaningful employment can play in better mental health outcomes for young people:
Work and meaningful employment can play a significant role in creating positive mental health outcomes for young people.
According to the World Health Organisation, employment and workplaces can provide reliable psychological experiences that promote positive mental health. These include routine and time structure; accountability that runs two ways (a social contract); a sense of being a part of something bigger than yourself (collective effort); a tool for creating an identity (an answer to ‘what do you do?’); and something to get up for most days (recurring activity).
Work also addresses some of the key indicators of stress and worry by relieving financial stress, and in some cases stress about the future.
But for young people today, the issue of insecure work is likely to be contributing to the rise in mental health concern. The reality is they don’t have the same stable workforce to enter into than previous generations and this is resulting in more workers than available jobs.
650,000 young people under the age of 25 are currently underemployed or unemployed, and insecure work has become the new norm. Young people are more likely to experience short-term employment, part-time or casual work, and are highly represented in the gig economy.
This immediately presents to problems. Firstly, often young people feel the need to accept any work they can find. This means they do not necessarily find work that they are interested in or where they can use their skills and training. Secondly, the insecure nature of most work that young people engage in means that they are highly susceptible to stress and financial insecurity which can manifest in mental health issues.
In this, a third dimension exists – meaning and purpose. Young people in this precarious stage of life that are potentially suffering mental health issues and aren’t able to secure work, are also missing out on a sense of meaningfulness in the work they do and the dignity that comes with such purpose.
It is critical to acknowledge and address the link between youth mental health, education and employment, and the transitions in between. Mental health does not happen in isolation from key adulthood milestones like these. So whether designing policy responses or programs and services, it is important to recognise the potential of education and employment in supporting positive mental health, wellbeing and an overall sense of purpose.
If you need support there are a range of services in Australia. National 24/7 crisis phone support for young people is available from Kids Helpline (1800 55 1800), Suicide Callback Service (1300 659 467), and Lifeline (13 11 14).