Australia

Australian teenagers are reporting increasing rates of psychological distress

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A study by Mission Australia and the Black Dog Institute has found almost one in four teenagers are now reporting mental health challenges, with rates twice as high in girls and young women.

Annastasya Watts has a busy life.

Along with studying psychology at university, the 19-year-old from Western Australia is also a manager at a fast-food outlet and a volunteer with a number of community organisations.

Annastasya was also diagnosed with depression and generalised anxiety disorder at the age of 15.

Her symptoms were further affected after she was sexually assaulted when she was 16. 

"Even just talking about it with my friends now, it's kind of insane to me how many people go through this," she told SBS News.

Annastasya Watts
Annastasya Watts was also diagnosed with depression and generalised anxiety disorder as a teenager.
SBS News

Annastasya said the assault resulted in post-traumatic stress disorder.

“I denied it for a long time. It took me a long time to come to grips that this happened. For people who are going through that, I want them to reach out. If you can't talk to your friends and family about it, talk to a professional." 

One in four reporting mental health challenges

A study of more than 28,000 Australians between the ages of 15 and 19 has found they are more likely to report feelings of psychological distress than they were seven years ago.

The report, released on Wednesday by homelessness charity Mission Australia and mental health research not for profit The Black Dog Institute, also shows young females are twice as likely to report mental health challenges than young males.

The 'Can we talk?' report is a summary of reports spanning seven years between 2012 and 2018, looking at levels of mental distress in people aged 15-19.

It found almost one in four young people in 2018 say they are experiencing mental health challenges, with a rise from 18.7 per cent in 2012 to 24.2 per cent 2018 in the number of people experiencing psychological distress.

A higher proportion of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander young people also met the criteria for psychological distress than their non-Indigenous peers, with reporting current rates of 31.9 per cent.

Annastasya Watts
Annastasya is now a mental health spokesperson and shares her experiences with others.
SBS

CEO of Mission Australia James Toomey said there may be a number of reasons behind the increase.

"There is a greater confidence and understanding of what actually constitutes psychological distress for young people,” he said.

Mr Toomey said those surveyed also reported feeling like there were more expectations on them, triggering more feelings of distress.

The director of the Black Dog Institute Professor Helen Christensen said it was difficult to pinpoint the exact reasons behind the increase.

"What we can say is the kids have not really changed in terms of their psychological and biological makeup. So we have to look for external influences,” she said.

“We really can't say what it is, but we can say that it is reliably increasing."

Girls more likely to report 

Girls and young women are twice as likely to say they are experiencing mental health challenges than males in the same age group, the report found. 

Mr Toomey said one of the reasons may be because of a greater understanding of what might constitute psychological distress in young women as well as more pronounced concerns about body image.

Annastasya said in her experience there was more pressure on young men to hide their emotions.

"It's that whole stigma of for men of 'you have to be strong, you have to act tough, you have to be the man', while for girls, we're more prone to sharing our feelings and opening up.”

As to where people go to for help, respondents said friends, parents, and the internet were their top three sources of help, but in remote Indigenous communities where internet access was patchy, that avenue wasn’t always available.

Vulnerable youths

There are also concerns the children of migrant and refugee background are also less likely to seek help with mental health issues.

Swathi Shanmukhasundaram is a youth advisor and a Shout Out speaker at the Centre for Multicultural Youth, and speaks on mental health issues.

She said shame can be a factor in young people from some communities coming forward.

"There's a huge burden of feeling like you have to save face and carry the family honour and recognising or even speaking about that you have a mental illness or that you're dealing with that in your family," she said.

She said some people worry speaking out "can taint that public image and dishonour your family". 

Annastasya, who was born in Indonesia to an Indonesian mother and an Australian father, says her Indonesian family favour a spiritual approach to mental health.

"It was a really big worry for me at the start because I was brought up in a western society, but my background is not completely western. Indonesia is a very religious country so it was very different," she said. 

Policy recommendations in the report include more funding to find out why females report high rates of distress, improved social media literacy, and more input from young people in the design of services.

Annastasya says she decided to speak out about her experience in the hope of helping others as well as herself.

She does this as a youth spokesperson for the Black Dog Institute, sharing her experience with high school students.

Therapy, she says, has helped her better identify symptoms of stress. 

"If I start feeling like everything I do is a chore and that I am not succeeding in anything, and that life kind of feels a bit hopeless, that's when I know I really need to start looking out for my mental health.”

Readers seeking support can contact Lifeline crisis support on 13 11 14, Suicide Call Back Service on 1300 659 467 and Kids Helpline on 1800 55 1800 (for young people aged 5 to 25). More information is available at Beyond Blue.org.au and lifeline.org.au.

Resources for young Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders can be found at Headspace: Yarn Safe.

If you or someone you know is impacted by sexual assault, call 1800RESPECT on 1800 737 732 or visit 1800RESPECT.org.au.

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