Mental health of young people in Australia

Executive summary

Page last updated: October 2000

Introduction

This report describes the results of the Child and Adolescent Component of the National Survey of Mental Health and Well-Being. This component of the survey was designed to answer four questions:
  • How many children and adolescents in Australia have mental health problems?
  • What is the nature of these problems?
  • What is the degree of disability associated with these problems?
  • What are the services used by children and adolescents with mental health problems?

Content of the report

Four sets of results are described in the report:
  1. The prevalence among young people of mental health problems and of three mental disorders (Depressive Disorder, Conduct Disorder, and Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder) [Chapter 3 and Chapter 5].
  2. The quality of life of young people with mental health problems [Chapter 4].
  3. Services used by young people with mental health problems [Chapter 6].
  4. The prevalence of mental health problems, quality of life and health-risk behaviour among adolescents as reported by adolescents themselves [Chapter 7].

Summary of conclusions

Prevalence of mental health problems

  • Fourteen percent of children and adolescents in Australia have mental health problems.
  • This high prevalence rate of mental health problems is found in all age and gender groups.
  • There is a higher prevalence of child and adolescent mental health problems among those living in low-income, step/blended and sole-parent families.
The prevalence of mental health problems identified in this survey is very similar to the prevalence identified in previous Australian and overseas surveys. The consistency of these results gives a high level of confidence in their accuracy.

The relatively large number of young people with mental health problems stands in contrast to the limited number of trained clinicians available to help them. This disparity makes it unlikely that specialised programs based in secondary and tertiary treatment settings (e.g., child and adolescent mental health services and departments of psychiatry in hospitals) will ever be able to provide direct care for all those with problems in Australia. As a result, there is a need to develop alternative approaches to reduce the prevalence of child and adolescent mental health problems.
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Quality of life of children and adolescents with mental health problems and their families

  • Children and adolescents with mental health problems have a poorer quality of life than their peers.
  • Parents of children and adolescents with mental health problems report greater concern and worry about their children's health and less time for their personal needs than other parents.
Mental health problems can have a significant adverse impact on children, adolescents, parents and families. It is therefore important that interventions provide broadly-based help for the parents and families of young people with problems as well as for the young people themselves.

Prevention and treatment programs have the potential to reduce child and adolescent mental health problems by changing family, school or community systems. There is a need to identify and implement new mental health promotion, prevention and treatment programs that can provide cost-effective help for both young people and their families in Australia.

Use of professional services

  • Only one out of every four young persons with mental health problems receives professional help.
  • Family doctors, school-based counsellors and paediatricians provide the services that are most frequently used by young people with mental health problems.
Even among young people with the most severe mental health problems, only 50% receive professional help. The majority of those receiving help attend services provided by health and education professionals who may have only limited training in the assessment and management of mental health problems. To function effectively, these professionals must have ready access to support from more specialised mental health services. In many areas of Australia such access is not possible due to a scarcity of child and adolescent mental health services. There is a need, therefore, to give more formal and informal training in child and adolescent mental health to professionals working in primary health care and school-based services. There is also a need to increase the number of specialised child and adolescent mental health services.

Adolescent-reported problems

  • Adolescents with mental health problems report a high rate of suicidal ideation and other health-risk behaviour, including smoking, drinking and drug use.
Adolescents with mental health problems do not have problems that are limited to a single aspect of their lives. Rather, their problems are wide-ranging and include suicidal ideation, smoking, alcohol use and drug abuse. There is consequently a need to develop joint policies and strategies across the different services that provide help to young people with mental health and related problems (e.g., school-based services, paediatricians, family doctors, mental health services, and drug and alcohol services).
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