Contrary to the opinion of leading health organisations, the health and wellbeing of young Australians is declining while mental health issues are on the rise. This is the finding of Richard Eckersley author of the report Never Better, or getting worse? The health and wellbeing of young Australians.

The report explores patterns and trends around the wellbeing of young people. Topics covered include mental health, crime and drugs, health and happiness and physical health.

Eckersley argues that measuring increased health in terms of lower mortality rates does not take into account our changing cultural trends that are affecting young people to the point where their overall health and wellbeing is being compromised by a range of non-fatal, chronic health problems, especially mental health disorders.

In 2008 the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare stated that, ‘Most young Australians are in good health, as indicated by self-reported health status, and relatively low and declining morbidity and mortality’.

Research suggests 20-30% of young people are suffering significant psychological distress, with less severe stress-related symptoms such as frequent headaches, stomach-aches and insomnia affecting as many as 50%.

Mental disorders are the largest contributor to the burden of disease in young Australians, measured as both death and disability; there is a need to improve young people’s resilience and wellbeing.

Factors contributing to the decline in mental health include family conflict and breakdown, education and work pressures, media and technological impacts, dietary changes and environmental pollution.

However, the causes also include cultural intangibles, such as excessive materialism and individualism. While young people are materially better off; they have more opportunities for education, leisure and travel, social and cultural changes have made it harder for them to develop a strong sense of identity, purpose, belonging and security.

In short many do not feel life is deeply meaningful and worthwhile.

Stricter standards for the corporate sector, especially the media and consumer industries need to be put in place. The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, says children have the right ‘to protection from harmful influences, abuse and exploitation’. At the same time, people are ‘becoming even more aware that many of the corrosive social problems affecting the quality of life have their genesis in the changing ecology of childhood’.

Concerns here go beyond junk food ads, ‘alcopops’ and the media sexualisation of children, to include the wholesale ‘commodification’ of childhood: the commercial manipulation and indoctrination of young people into an unhealthy, unsustainable, hyper-consumer lifestyle.

The health of young people shapes the future health of the whole population and in a broader social sense, the health of Australian society. There is increasing evidence that chronic problems are becoming more common due to changing lifestyles and social conditions.

Mental Health
Young people appear to be suffering mental health problems at an earlier age, with greater intensity and with far reaching consequences into their adult life.

A 2007 survey of more than 10,000 Australian students aged 4 to 18 years old found that about 40% of students could be described as displaying lower levels of social and emotional wellbeing:

  • 18% said they were lonely
  • 20% had recently felt hopeless and depressed for a week and had stopped regular activities
  • 31% had difficulty controlling how depressed they got
  • 35% lost their temper a lot
  • 42% worried too much,  and
  • 48% had difficulty calming down when upset.

Several surveys by the Australian Childhood Foundation (Tucci et al 2006, 2007, 2008) found children experienced high levels of stress, worry and anxiety.

Concerns ranged from how they look, not doing well enough, being bullied and not fitting in, being hurt by an adult, and feeling unsafe in public places and using public transport and the internet, through to climate change, water shortages, pollution and world affairs.

They established 3 categories of children:

  1. 52% who felt well connected and supported
  2. 42% who felt ‘worried’
  3. 8% who felt ‘disconnected and insular’ (the most vulnerable)

Eckersley is also the founder of Australia 21, a not for profit company. Australia 21 aims to improve community understanding of the factors that will contribute to a better future for our children.

Writer Helen Splarn. Editor Dr Ramesh Manocha

Source: Never better, or getting worse? The health and wellbeing of young Australians, Richard Eckersley