The severity of mental ill-health among WA’s youth impacts the wider economy and the state’s workforce.
Mental illness and suicide does not discriminate. Regardless of where you live, your job or your family's income, anyone can experience a mental health issue.
The Australian Bureau of Statistic's National Study of Mental Health and Wellbeing revealed 39 per cent of young people aged 16-24 reported experiencing a mental health disorder.
This is an unprecedented increase from 26 per cent in 2007 when the last data set was recorded 15 years ago.
The most recent snapshot of mental health in Australia was published in 2022 from findings gathered between December 2020 and July 2021, with an updated report due to be released by the ABS in October this year.
The national survey showed that at least 13 per cent of Australian children aged as young as 4 to 11 are experiencing a mental health disorder.
Young women and Australians who identified as LGBTQI+ had elevated rates of mental illness.
Some of the contributing factors to mental illness include prolonged periods of stress, family issues, divorce, grief, financial concerns, abuse, bullying and discrimination, she explained.
Lifestyle factors including poor diet, limited exercise and low exposure to nature and sunlight also has an impact on our ‘DOSE’ brain chemicals – dopamine, oxytocin, serotonin and endorphins.
“On top of these factors, we have the addition of technology and social media use that is contributing to sleep issues, burnout and online bullying, among other issues,” Ms Harrison added.
Life is more complex for teenagers of this generation, with access to technology and information changing their lifestyles. The average teenager spends three to six hours a day on screens and online, including texting, social media, gaming and streaming.
“The increase in technology and accessibility to information has increased the pace of life which has contributed to a huge decrease in our mental and physical health, especially for our children and young people,” Ms Harrison said.
Over the past few years, the rates of mental illness and self-harm have increased. Around 29 per cent young people – close to half a million youth – indicated high psychological distress in the latest national survey.
Almost a quarter (23.5 per cent or 365,677) of the same age group of young people in Australia felt lonely all or most of the time.
The statistics show that more than half of young people have needed support with their mental health at some point in their life.
“Today, more than 100,000 children and teenagers are prescribed antidepressants. This is an increase of 60 per cent in the past five years,” Ms Harrison said.
Impact on productivity
The Productivity Commission’s report on mental health emphasises the huge economic cost of mental ill-health and suicide in Australia, with almost half of Australian adults meeting the criteria for mental illness at some point in their life.
The report revealed the financial toll of mental illness on the economy around $220 billion a year. The commission estimated the direct economic costs are between A$43 billion and A$70 billion, with an additional A$151 billion due to the cost of disability and premature death.
“The cost of mental illness for our state is huge, and one that I don’t believe many Australians fully appreciate,” Ms Harrison said. “Not only does mental illness cost us lives and loved ones to suicide, but it also has a large economic cost.”
The Productivity Commission Inquiry into Mental Health categorised investment in population mental health during early childhood and in school settings as “very cost effective”.
Not only can preventative approaches significantly improve the lives of children and their families, intervening early in life and early in illness has significant economic benefits.
“The research shows that if we invest in prevention and early intervention of mental health issues, we don’t just see an increase in mental health and wellbeing, but we also see a massive financial benefit and saving,” Ms Harrison explained.
Prevention is better than a cure
Mental health organisation Black Dog Institute reported that children whose mental health challenges are identified early and addressed effectively see immediate and long-term benefits across their lifespan.
“Evidence shows that 75 per cent of mental illness emerges before the age of 25 and 50 per cent before the age of 15,” Ms Harrison said.
“If the right work is done in the early years and we completely re-educate our country about this issue, mental illness could be identified in the early stages, people could better support their own mental health, and more lives could be saved because suicide wouldn’t even become an option.”
Less than 2 per cent of the mental health budget in WA is invested in mental health prevention, Ms Harrison pointed out.
“Greater investment and funding is needed in the sector, especially prevention. Our government and many other treatment-based funding bodies still prioritise the funding of mental health treatment ahead of any prevention work,” Ms Harrison said.
“I would love to see mental health treated like most other health issues, with a prioritisation on prevention.”
zero2hero’s work aims to give young people the skills and knowledge to support their own mental health and prevent suicide before the point of crisis.
“Our work relies on the generosity and support of corporate and individual donors. Funding aside, there are always opportunities to help. zero2hero is always looking for volunteers and mentors to support our young people,” Ms Harrison added.
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