Australia’s hidden mental illness epidemic

| August 6, 2019

And women are suffering the highest rates of mental illness, with about 20 per cent reporting they have an ongoing diagnosis of depression and or anxiety compared with around 12 per cent of men.

Women tend to suffer more mental illness than men. 

The annual HILDA (Household, Income and Labour Dynamic in Australia) Survey of 17,000 people found that in the eight years 2009 to 2017, rates of diagnosed depression and or anxiety among young women aged 15 to 34 jumped from 13 per cent to over 20 per cent.

The story is similar for middle-aged women (aged 35 to 54 years), with combined rates of depression and or anxiety rising from 13 per cent to 19 per cent. Among older women the combined prevalence is up from 12 per cent to 17 per cent.

While men report lower rates of diagnosed depression and or anxiety, the rates of increase are also high, particularly for young men (aged 15 to 34) where combined rates have almost doubled from six per cent to 11 per cent, with rates of depression and anxiety each now running at almost nine per cent.

Rates of diagnosed depression and anxiety

Age and Gender Depression Anxiety
15-34yo Women 12.6 per cent 17.1 per cent
15-34yo Men 8.7 per cent 8.5 per cent
35-54yo Women 14.4 per cent 13.8 per cent
35-54yo Men 10.5 per cent 8.7 per cent
55 and over Women 11.3 per cent 10.5 per cent
55 and over Men 9.0 per cent 6.6 per cent

Among middle-aged men (aged 35 to 54 years), the combined rates of depression and anxiety have similarly jumped from eight per cent to 14 per cent, while among older men the prevalence is now running at 12 per cent, up from eight per cent.

The prevalence of diagnosed mental illness among young women and men now exceeds asthma, the prevalence of which is little changed at 12 per cent and 10 per cent respectively.

For middle-aged women, it is now more common to have a mental illness than arthritis or osteoporosis (11 per cent) – while for middle-aged men, mental illness has overtaken high blood pressure (11 per cent) as the most common serious illness.

HILDA Survey leader and University of Melbourne economist, Professor Roger Wilkins, says the data raises questions over why women are reporting much higher rates of depression or anxiety than men.

He says that men are less likely to seek medical help or admit to a diagnosis, which could mask the extent of the problem among men.

Professor Wilkins also notes that the higher overall rates of depression and anxiety may reflect progress in reducing the community stigma that is commonly attached to mental illness.

“It may be that by reducing the stigma we are getting better at diagnosing these conditions and dealing with them, and people may be more willing to seek a diagnosis and disclose it as a result,” Professor Wilkins says.

The high rates of depression and anxiety, especially among younger people, may also reflect the rise of social media and its potential to heighten insecurities.

A decline in social stigma means that more people are willing to seek help for mental illness. 

“Social media is definitely playing a role in young people’s mental health, due in part to the abundance of opportunities for self-other comparisons,” says psychologist Dr Rohan Borschmann, a senior research fellow at the Melbourne School of Population and Global Health and team leader at the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute.

Dr Borschmann notes that in the US there has been a recent call for more urgent research into the role of social media in rising suicide rates among adolescent girls.

And, he says, the increasing rates of depression and anxiety seen in Australia are in line with trends in comparable countries like the UK.

“A similar rise in both anxiety and depression has been reported in young women in national surveys in the UK, and rates of self-harm have increased in recent years in both Australia and the UK, with an alarming one in five 16 to 24-year-old females in England reporting lifetime self-harm in 2014.”

For older Australians arthritis or osteoporosis (46 per cent of women and 28 per cent of men) and high blood pressure (43 per cent of women and 40 per cent of men) remain by far the most common serious illnesses.

The HILDA evidence is further confirmation that Australia is facing a major mental health challenge following similar trends in data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics, and underscores the need for recent moves to boost support for mental health programs.

According to data from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, spending on mental health services rose by only an average 1.1 per cent a year in the four years to 2016-17.

And as a proportion of total government health expenditure, mental health spending had actually gone down from 7.7 per cent in 2012 to 13 to 7.4 per cent in 2016-17.

The increasing rates of depression and anxiety seen in Australia follow trends overseas. 

But since then, the 2018-19 Commonwealth Budget allocated $A125 million over ten years to mental health research under its Minds Mental Health Research Mission, and the 2019-20 budget included a $A461 million Youth Mental Health and Suicide Prevention Plan.

In the state of Victoria, there’s a Royal Commission underway into mental health care.

“The funding situation appears to be improving somewhat, but mental health clearly needs to be prioritised: suicide remains the leading cause of death among young Australians aged 15 to 44,” says Dr Borschmann.

The HILDA survey also includes data on which serious illnesses are most associated with death, and shows that for most age groups cancer has the highest mortality rate over four years.

Among young Australians (aged 15 to 34), some six per cent of those with cancer die within four years. The next most deadly condition among young people is Type 1 diabetes with a 2.7 per cent mortality rate after four years.

But for middle-aged Australians, Type 1 diabetes is the deadliest serious illness with a 14 per cent mortality rate after four years, followed by heart disease (11 per cent mortality) and cancer (nine per cent mortality).

Among older Australians, cancer has a mortality rate of 17 per cent, followed by heart disease, chronic bronchitis or emphysema, and circulatory conditions like stroke and blocked arteries; all have a mortality rate after four years of 16 per cent.

To put these mortality rates in context, the four-year mortality rates for Australians without any serious illness is just 0.1 per cent and 0.3 per cent respectively for those aged 15-34 and 35-54.

For older Australians free of serious illness, the four-year mortality rate is 3.6 per cent.

Cancer, heart disease and circulatory conditions are concerns for older Australians. 

Finally, the data shows that most Australians are regularly (at least once a year) seeking medical attention for their health conditions, but many people appear to be ignoring or self-managing their asthma.

Half of male asthma sufferers and a quarter of women, haven’t seen a doctor about their asthma in the last year.

If you or anyone you know are concerned about the issues raised in this article, Beyond Blue can offer help and support.

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