With Australia in recession, there are grave fears for the mental health of young people

Matthew King, 19, was settling into his new life well until COVID-19 hit. Source: Headspace

It’s been 29 years since Australia was last in recession, meaning an entire generation have never lived through its impacts.

Content Warning: This article contains reference to self-harm and suicide

Coronavirus cases may be dropping off but the economic impacts of the virus in Australia are only just beginning, with concerns mental health cases are yet to spike among young people.

The recession is Australia’s first in 29 years. The economy was battered during the March quarter, going backward by 0.3 per cent and shrinking for the first time in nine years. Treasurer Josh Frydenberg predicts the June quarter to be even worse.

Director of youth mental health service Orygen and University of Melbourne professor Patrick McGorry said young people would be among the most vulnerable during a recession.   

“Teenagers and young adults are in a transitional period of life from childhood to adulthood and they are basically trying to establish themselves as adults,” he told SBS News.

“They are completing their education, forming new peer networks, changing their relationship with their parents and trying to find an employment pathway.

“All of these things have been put under tremendous threat by the economic recession, especially one at the depth we are expecting … and they are already the highest risk group for mental health.”

Technically, until the June quarter GDP figures are released next month, the recession won’t be confirmed. But youth unemployment has already risen from 14.1 per cent to 16.1 per cent as a result of business closures after strict social distancing measures were imposed in late March to prevent the spread of COVID-19. 

During the last recession in 1991, youth unemployment peaked above 20 per cent compared to the broader unemployment rate of 11.2 per cent.

Professor Patrick McGorry
Professor Patrick McGorry is concerned about the rise in youth unemployment.

"There will be much higher rates of unemployment in young people than in older age groups if past recessions are anything to go by,” Professor McGorry said.

And he’s worried it will lead to cases of anxiety and depression, and the risk of self-harm and suicide.

"In every other economic recession going right back to the Great Depression in the 1030s, unemployment sees suicide go up. If youth unemployment does rise to a certain level, we are going to see a rise in suicide."

Suicide is the leading cause of death for people aged between 15-44 in Australia, with 3,046 registered deaths in 2018 attributed to people who died due to intentional self-harm - 458 of those were people under the age of 25.

The suicide rate for Indigenous Australians aged 15-24 is 40.5 per 100,000, which is more than three times the rate of non-Indigenous young people.

With an entire generation facing an unknown economic crisis, Professor McGorry said young people today are also “much more vulnerable” than those who lived through the 1991 recession.

“We know there are indicators that their mental health is significantly worse than it was in those days, so there have been rising rates of anxiety and depression in young people, rising rates of suicide in young people,” he said.

“I think this recession is greater cause for concern.”

Not the year they expected

Matthew King, 19, saw 2020 as a fresh start after battling with mental health issues last year.

Originally from Sydney and accepting an offer to study an arts degree majoring in politics at the University of Melbourne, Mr King was lucky enough to have had his accommodation pre-paid for.

This was supposed to be the year of his “freedom”, living away from home in a new place, but it turned out to be far from that as Mr King is now back home in Sydney and continuing university from his bedroom.

Matthew King
Matthew King, 19, was settling into his new life well until COVID-19 hit.

Over the past few months, Mr King has had to dip into his savings as he was unemployed and struggled to find a job during the pandemic.

“Companies are trying to keep their own employees employed which is obviously very fair enough but it's very hard to set a future direction and knowing if you're actually able to pursue your career,” he said.

“I haven’t been able to find a job to keep me financially independent, during COVID and since.”

“It’s been really hard to live a normal life while studying because you can't go out as much and you aren’t able to live this young fun life because you just don’t have the money to do so and you don’t have that freedom.”

Now, he says, the uncertainty of his future is becoming distressing.  

“COVID happened and everything I got used to had gone,” he said.

“I'm kind of concerned if there are going to be graduate opportunities ... And I'm also concerned, like many young people, that grades will be impacted which will impact future studies and, possibly, future career prospects."

And as the recession kicks in, working on his mental health remains the number one priority.

“It’s really scary, but I went through a period of lots of instability last year so that really equipped me to look at things day by day and you can't overcomplicate big issues, you have to look at it simply,” he said.

A survey released by Australia’s non-profit youth mental health foundation Headspace last week showed 47 per cent of young people have been impacted by the coronavirus pandemic.

Headspace CEO Jason Trethowan predicts that percentage could grow.

“Young people are affected by recessions and recessions will impact employment,” he said. 

“But of course, if there is under-employment or unemployment, it is another situational factor that actually adds to, I guess, to challenging the wellbeing of people." 

Concern for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people  

With suicide numbers already disproportionately impacting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, Indigenous psychologist and member of the Australian Indigenous Psychological Association (AIPA) Kelleigh Ryan said the recession could make things even worse. 

“Elders and youth are extremely vulnerable, but all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples are at risk of feeling extra exposure to the repercussions of the virus and concurrent social and economic issues,” Ms Ryan, a Kabi Kabi woman said.

“Many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families live in poverty and the economic recession that we are experiencing, and will experience for some time, will see vulnerable families even more negatively affected.”

Age specific death rates from intentional self-harm 2014 -2018.
Age specific death rates from intentional self-harm 2014 -2018.
Australian Bureau of Statistics

Ms Ryan is concerned that the recession could see support for First Nations people cut off or wound back.

“We live constantly with the fear of potential cuts to funding for Indigenous service provision and this has been exacerbated,” she said.

“Again, we will see non-Indigenous agencies with poor cultural awareness or safety providing services to our families. This means that the needs of young Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander young people and their social and emotional wellbeing will not be met fully due to lack of a cultural lens.

Coping mechanisms

Vikki Ryall is executive director of clinical practice at Headspace. She said during times of struggle, people shouldn’t be afraid to ask for help.

“Connect socially, get into activities that make you feel good and make sure you’re eating and sleeping well,” she said.

“I think it's important for parents to have conversations … open conversations with young people about how they are travelling and feeling.”

“Our website has suggestions for parents about how to start these conversations, how to look out for early warning signs and a range of other resources.”

Mohammed Hadi Rahimi, 24, came from Pakistan as a refugee seven years ago with his family.
Mohammed Hadi Rahimi, 24, came from Pakistan as a refugee seven years ago with his family.

Mohammed Hadi Rahimi, 24, came from Pakistan as a refugee seven years ago with his family.

He has experienced mental health difficulties in the past and studied social work at Charles Sturt University in Perth.

It is his resilience that has got him through COVID-19 so far and will take him through the recession, he says. 

“If one thing doesn't work, I always move on and try and focus on the opportunities rather than the challenges,” he said.

With the support of his family around him, Mr Rahimi has learnt to manage his anxiety, which has helped him through the pandemic. 

“In the midst of the crisis, I certainty adopted new measures in my life like starting a new self-care regime or changing my nutrition, having more sleep time and having more interactions on social media channels, so it helped me to reflect on my life."

Readers seeking support and information about suicide prevention can contact: Lifeline on 13 11 14, the Suicide Call Back Service on 1300 659 467 or find an Aboriginal Medical Service here. There are resources for young people at Headspace Yarn Safe.

Readers seeking support and information about suicide prevention can contact Lifeline on 13 11 14, Suicide Call Back Service on 1300 659 467 and Kids Helpline on 1800 55 1800 (up to age 25). 

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