Last updated October 9, 2017 at 11:07 am
The highest rates of depression in Australia belong to people aged 18-24. What is it about our teenage years that cause so much anxiety?
I am one of the million other people living in Australia affected by depression and part of the two million Australians affected by anxiety disorders. During their lifetime, 45% of Australians will be affected by mental health issues. The World Health Organisation estimates depression “will be the number one health concern in both the developed and developing nations by 2030.” Depression costs the Australian economy $12.6 billion dollars a year. Even if you’re lucky enough to not be affected personally, you know someone who is suffering.
Some of the biggest outcomes from Australia’s Biggest Mental Health Check-in, which examined the mental health of over 3000 participants aged 18-89, were that the highest rates of depression, anxiety and sleep disturbances were found among 18-24 year olds; 25-34 year olds were next most likely to be suffering, and those aged 45-54 were least likely to be suffering from these conditions.
The problem, however, doesn’t begin at 18. According to Mission Australia’s own research, mental health accounts for “45% of the global burden of disease among those aged 10 to 24 years”, with “half of all lifetime mental health disorders” surfacing during this time. Let’s be clear: we’re not talking about young people “having a bad day” or being “a bit sad”; we’re talking about children as young as 10 self-harming, starving themselves, abusing drink and drugs, and attempting suicide. School-aged young people have it tougher now than ever: aside from the trials of adolescence we all experience, high-stakes testing and social media are two factors having a dramatic impact on school life for young people in ways unknown to past generations.
From their third year of primary school, children are faced with the first of many standardised tests, on the run up to which they are drilled, tested, and retested to prepare for that one test to rule them all (NAPLAN), the validity of which is fiercely debated. Studies from the last few years from Australia and around the globe, have conclusively found that high-stakes testing has a negative impact on the mental and physical well being of students. A report from the Whitlam Institute found that “90% of teachers reported that students felt stressed” before taking NAPLAN exams, which may account for the declining participation numbers in NAPLAN every year.
NAPLAN is only the beginning. From primary school and into high school, the tests become more frequent and higher in stakes: in New South Wales, students are not permitted to sit their final HSC exams in Year 12 without having passed the NAPLAN in Year 9 in a bid to “motivate students in junior high school” as there is “an issue in NSW that our [the state’s] results aren’t as good as they should be.” A study by the UNSW School of Education, found that 42% of students from a range of Sydney schools “registered high-level anxiety symptoms, high enough to be of clinical concern” around exams. Twelve years of school all coming down to one set of tests: the pressure placed on young people to perform is higher than ever.
A different sort of pressure is increasingly being found out of the classroom or even the real world – it’s in the virtual. Figures from across the globe show that teenagers spend anywhere between nine hours a day in the USA to more than 18 hours a week online in Australia. With smartphones becoming more common among young people, and the advent of 1:1 device programs in many high school classrooms, this figure can only increase.
Find a teenager and an active internet connection, and you’ll find a social media account. Despite ubiquitous advertising of conventional beauty standards, social media plays a far greater role in causing body dissatisfaction amongst users, with even worse effects for younger users. Spending so much time looking at socialites, who have the resources to make a life of gym visits, #sponsered #cleaneating, and selfies, is causing many teenagers, girls particularly, to idolise drastically unrealistic body images to the point where “one in five teenage girls starve themselves or vomit up their food to control their weight”.
In the “good old days”, all we had to do to avoid the local bully was steer clear of them. Where do we escape when the bullies are using social media to take harassment from the playground to the news feed? The Australian Communications and Media Authority found that “all children and young people…had some experience of cyberbullying”. Whether threats of violence or being shamed for their pictures, the online culture of bullying is pervasive and real; with no reprieve for the victims save for disconnecting from social media, and their peers, entirely.
It’s all too easy for those of us who have run the gauntlet of adolescence to write off the negative experiences of teenagers as “part of growing up” and “something we all had to deal with”. For young people with mental health issues, hearing “get over it” and “you’ll be alright” is hearing “keep it to yourself”. What we need to say is “let’s talk about it”, “how can I help?”, or “it’s okay to not be okay”. There’s no shame in speaking about your feelings and seeking help. It’s not a sign of weakness. It took me a long time to admit I was depressed when I was in my late-20s but I’m glad I did: I got the help I needed to get on the road to recovery.
The world is constantly changing. Regardless of when we went to school and what we dealt with, when a young person needs help we must be there to hear them out and give them whatever help we can. After all, we’re the oneS who were lucky enough to survive – how many people from our generations would still be alive today if they were met with some sort of understanding and compassion?
If you or anyone you know is affected by mental health issues, please speak to someone and seek help. Not sure where to turn? Here are some online resources:
- Kids Helpline (telephone and online counselling for ages 5-25) – call 1800 55 1800
- headspace (mental health service for ages 12-25) – call 1800 650 890
- ReachOut.com (youth mental health service) – online help
- SANE Australia (people living with a mental illness) – call 1800 18 7263
- Lifeline (support for anyone having a personal crisis) – call 13 11 14
- Suicide Call Back Service (anyone thinking about suicide) – call 1300 659 467