The mental health of Australians 2

2.2 Prevalence of mental disorders in different population sub-groups

Page last updated: May 2009

A number of social and demographic characteristics are strongly associated with the prevalence of mental disorders.

2.2.1 Sex and age

The 2007 National Survey of Mental Health and Wellbeing found that males were less likely than females to have experienced mental disorders in the 12 months prior to the survey (17.6% for males compared to 22.3% for females) (table 2-2).

Females were more likely than males to have experienced anxiety disorders (17.9% compared to 10.8%) and affective disorders (7.1% compared to 5.3%). However, males were more than twice as likely as females to have substance use disorders (7.0% compared to 3.3%).

The 2007 survey found that people in the younger age groups were more likely to experience mental disorders. Figure 2-1 shows how the prevalence of mental disorders declines with age from more than one in four (26.4%) in the youngest age group (16-24 years), to around one in twenty (5.9%) in the oldest age group (75-85 years). This pattern of the prevalence of mental disorders declining with age was true for both males and females.

Table 2-2: Prevalence of 12-month mental disorders by mental disorder class and sex

DisorderMale (%)Female (%)
Affective disorders
5.3
7.1
Anxiety disorders
10.8
17.9
Substance use disorders
7.0
3.3
Any mental disorder
17.6
22.3

Note: Totals are lower than the sum of disorders as people may have had more than one class of mental disorder in the 12 months.

Top of page

Figure 2-1: Prevalence of 12-month mental disorders by age and sex

Text equivalent below for Figure 2-1: Prevalence of 12-month mental disorders by age and sex

Text version of figure 2-1

Figures in this description are approximate as they have been read from the graph.
Age group (years)MaleFemale
16-24
22.7
30.0
25-34
22.7
26.8
35-44
20.7
25.8
45-54
18.5
24.0
55-64
10.8
16.3
65-74
7.7
9.5
75+
4.8
6.8

2.2.2 Social and demographic characteristics

The prevalence of mental disorders was examined among different sub-groups of the population. These sub-groups were defined according to marital status, labour force status, education and country of birth. Whether people had previous experiences of homelessness and had been incarcerated at some point in their lifetime were also collected. While it is possible to find out from this survey about sub-groups of the population in which the prevalence of mental disorders is relatively high, it is not possible from the survey results to draw conclusions about the causal relationships between these social and demographic factors and the onset of mental disorders.

The prevalence of 12-month mental disorders in population sub-groups defined by social and demographic characteristics is presented in table 2-3. These prevalence rates for marital status, labour force status and education were adjusted for age due to the fact that both the presence of mental disorders and these social and demographic factors are strongly related to age.

Table 2-3: Prevalence of 12-month mental disorders by sex, marital status, labour force status, education and country of birth.

Table 2-3 is separated into 4 smaller tables in this HTML version for accessibility reasons. It is presented as one table in the PDF version.

Marital Status

CharacteristicMales (%)Females (%)Persons (%)
Married/De facto
14.7
19.3
17.3
Separated/Divorced/Widowed
25.7
25.2
25.7
Never married
22.4
26.2
24.3

Labour force status

CharacteristicMales (%)Females (%)Persons (%)
Employed
17.7
19.5
18.7
Unemployed
23.9
26.6
25.8
Not in the labour force
23.9
28.3
26.8

Education

CharacteristicMales (%)Females (%)Persons (%)
Post-school qualification
17.6
21.5
19.5
School qualification only
16.0
25.1
20.2
Did not complete school
22.9
26.7
24.9

Country of birth

CharacteristicMales (%)Females (%)Persons (%)
Australia
19.5
24.0
21.8
Other English-speaking country
17.7
19.9
18.7
Non-English speaking country
8.4
16.2
12.6

Note: Numbers presented for marital status, labour force status and education are age-standardised.

Top of page

2.2.2.1 Marital status

People who were married or in de facto relationships had a lower prevalence of mental disorders (14.7% in males and 19.3% in females) compared to people who were never married (22.4% in males and 26.2% in females). One quarter of people who were separated, divorced or widowed (25.7% in males and 25.2% in females) had 12-month mental disorders. However, the casual relationship between having mental disorders and people's marital status is not possible to determine from the survey. People with mental disorders may be less likely to marry or the stress of divorce or separation may impact on people's mental health.

2.2.2.2 Labour force status

People who were employed had the lowest prevalence of mental disorders (18.7%). However, the prevalence of mental disorders was similar for unemployed people and those not in the labour force (25.8 and 26.8% respectively). Those not in the labour force cover a broad range of people, including people in caregiving roles not in employment, retired people and those on long-term disability and sickness benefits.

The exact causal nature of this association is not possible to determine from the survey. The presence of mental disorders may make it more difficult to find and maintain employment, while the stress of job loss may trigger the onset or exacerbate the symptoms of a mental disorder.

2.2.2.3 Education

The prevalence of mental disorders was higher among those with lower levels of education, particularly for females. The prevalence of mental disorders was 24.9% for those who did not complete school compared to 20.2% for those with school qualifications only and 19.5% for those with post-school qualifications.

2.2.2.4 Country of birth

People who were born in Australia had a higher prevalence of mental disorders (19.5% in males and 24.0% in females) compared to those born overseas. The prevalence of mental disorders in people born in other English-speaking countries was 17.7% for males and 19.9% for females. However, the prevalence of mental disorders was much lower for people from non-English speaking countries (8.4% in males and 16.2% in females).

The exact nature of this relationship is difficult to determine and may be explained in part by what is termed the 'healthy migrant effect'. People who successfully migrate are more likely to be physically healthier than the remainder of the population. This may also be true for mental disorders. Top of page

2.2.2.5 Homelessness

Three percent of the total population living in private households reported that they had been homeless at some point in their life. The prevalence of 12-month mental disorders was over two and a half times higher (53.6%) in this group compared to the general population (20.0%). While homelessness is often associated with psychotic illness and substance use disorders, affective disorders and anxiety disorders were also found to be significantly higher among people who reported prior homelessness (27.7% and 39.4% respectively) than the general population (6.2% and 14.4% respectively).

2.2.2.6 Incarceration

Just over two percent (2.4%) of the total population reported being in jail, prison or a correctional facility at some point in their lifetime. People who reported a previous history of incarceration were twice as likely (41.1%) to have had mental disorders in the previous 12 months when compared to the general population (20.0%).

Affective disorders were three times higher among people with a history of incarceration compared to the general population (19.3% compared to 6.2%), anxiety disorders twice as high (27.5% compared to 14.4%) and substance use disorders four times higher (22.8% compared to 5.1%).