One in four young Australians thought about suicide over the past two years and 15 per cent attempted self-harm, according to a poll of 16 to 24-year-olds.
Experts called for urgent action to tackle the nation’s deepening youth mental health crisis as the exclusive survey for The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald revealed the magnitude of the pandemic's toll on young people.
Eighty-two per cent of those surveyed said they had experienced mental health issues during COVID-19.
Young Australians have taken the biggest psychological hit - a separate poll found significantly fewer adults aged 25 and over (49 per cent) reported mental health issues.
Those aged 16 to 24 were most likely to report symptoms of anxiety (75 per cent) and depression (62 per cent), while 36 per cent identified eating disorder symptoms, binge-eating being the most common.
While youth mental health was a growing problem before COVID-19, the survey shows issues have been exacerbated by the pandemic. Forty-two per cent said their mental health issues had become worse and 11 per cent said they were caused by the impact of the pandemic.
The survey, conducted by research company Resolve Strategic, was based on questions to 1002 people aged between 16 and 24 from February 16 to 27. The findings have a margin of error of 3 per cent.
Molli Johns, a 19-year-old from the Melbourne suburb of Richmond, said she relapsed into her eating disorder during the pandemic and became depressed.
Ms Johns is one of several young people who shared their experience of mental illness for a new podcast about youth mental health, called Enough, being launched on Monday by The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.
"I lost all motivation," said Ms Johns, who studied year 12 remotely in 2020. "I was getting up just to sit in front of my computer screen and what was the point?"
Professor Patrick McGorry, executive director of Orygen, the National Centre of Excellence in Youth Mental Health, said mental ill-health in young people was at crisis point.
"We've been trying to wake people up for 20 years about youth mental health because it's been deteriorating, worldwide, and especially in Australia all that time," Professor McGorry said.
"The pandemic has definitely put the skids under young people."
The Australian mental health system had been overwhelmed during the pandemic, Professor McGorry said, with GPs, headspace centres (which provide mental health services to 12 to 25-year-olds) and emergency departments inundated and the workforce dwindling and exhausted.
He called on the federal government to urgently invest in specialised early intervention back-up systems of care for the "missing middle" – those young people with severe mental health problems such as anorexia, early psychosis and personality disorders – that the 20 Medicare-subsidised psychology sessions could not fix.
"This is an urgent national priority," he said.
While the Resolve poll found one in four respondents had suicidal thoughts, the latest Australian government figures show the number of people under 25 who died by suicide remained steady in the first year of the pandemic.
In 2020, 480 Australians under the age of 25 took their own lives, the same number as in 2019.
Resolve director Jim Reed said behind each statistic in the poll was a human story and the sheer scale of the issue was staggering.
"While we can only really be certain that a young person is experiencing a specific or serious problem with an expert diagnosis, surveys like this can capture a lot of people who have not attempted to get a formal diagnosis or for whom the symptoms are less severe," he said.
A separate Resolve poll of 1414 people aged over 25, conducted a week earlier, found significantly less psychological distress among adults.
Forty-nine per cent of this cohort reported mental health issues during the pandemic compared with 82 per cent of 16 to 24 year-olds, 13 per cent had thought about suicide (compared with 25 per cent of 16 to 24 year-olds) and 3 per cent had attempted self-harm (compared with 15 per cent of 16 to 24 year-olds).
"Ironically, few young people tell us they're worried about vaccines or COVID itself, and for them social restrictions have been the major force," Mr Reed said. "The cure has been worse than the disease for this age group."
Isaac Percy, 23, from Camden in outer Sydney, said his anxiety was exacerbated by COVID-19 uncertainty and fear.
"It was really hard to be pulled away from my support network of friends … and not being able to go do things I enjoy like seeing live music."
Australian Psychological Society CEO Dr Zena Burgess said the survey findings were sobering and tallied with the experiences of the society's members.
"Eating disorders got worse, anxiety got worse, depression got worse and generally, all the self-esteem issues of adolescence and young adulthood got worse," she said.
One in three psychologists have been so busy they have had to close their books, according to an Australian Psychological Society survey of its members last month, compared with one in 100 before the pandemic.
Dr Burgess called on the government to continue to fund 20 Medicare-subsidised psychology sessions a year, retain telehealth to serve young people in rural areas and improve online services that link people to psychologists. She also urged training for parents, teachers and sports coaches.
Melbourne-based Emily Unity, a 24-year-old with anxiety and depression, said ongoing support was needed. "These experiences we're having aren't going to go away just because COVID goes away."
National Children's Commissioner Anne Hollonds said COVID-19 had opened up the conversation around young people and mental health.
"We need more trained psychologists and psychiatrists and mental health workers generally trained in working with kids because there's a huge workforce gap," Ms Hollonds said.
Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt said headspace was at the heart of the government's vision for youth primary mental health services and the Coalition continued to take steps to expand it.
The government was investing $873.2 million in headspace mental health charity over the next four years, which would bring the number of headspace centres to 164 nationally by 2025-2026.
"Improving mental health services for all Australians, especially younger Australians, is a deep personal passion," Mr Hunt said.
Opposition mental health spokesman Mark Butler said mental health would be a priority under a federal Labor government.
Victoria's Mental Health Minister, James Merlino, said the state was embarking on the biggest reform of a mental health system in Australia's history. He said the state had invested more than $842 million in youth mental health alone last year. A dedicated mental health practitioner had been placed in every government secondary and specialist school in Victoria and 100 primary schools.
A spokesperson for NSW Mental Health Minister Bronwyn Taylor said the state had established 20 havens where young people who were distressed or having suicidal thoughts could talk to a peer-support worker or mental health professional, brought in 100 school wellbeing nurses and spent $109.5 million on child and adolescent mental health response teams.
Article by Jewel Topsfield and Sophie Aubrey
Posted March 27, 2022
Published by Sydney Morning Herald