Despite doing everything -right' – from exercising more and drinking less – the number of young adults living with one or more mental health conditions has reached an all-time high, at 1.7 million, according to new data from the Medibank Better Health Index.
Released ahead of World Health Day (Friday 7 April) – of which this year's theme is -Depression: Let's Talk' – the data shows the number of 18-34 year-olds suffering from depression has increased significantly, from 738,000 in 2009-10 to more than one million in the latest Index. Anxiety and panic attacks have also skyrocketed amongst this age group, with both conditions doubling over the last nine years.
Medibank Chief Medical Officer, Dr Linda Swan said, 'We know mental health issues are on the rise, and worryingly, our data shows a particularly steep upward trend amongst young Aussies. We don't want to keep seeing these figures increase; if you're suffering with a mental health condition, take a lead from this year's World Health Day theme and chat to a loved one or professional about how you're feeling."
Diet and exercise: Young adults leading by example
Despite this upward trend towards mental health issues, young Aussies are more likely to keep healthy through exercise and diet than ever before. The latest Index shows the percentage of 18-34 year-olds who've exercised in the last three months has risen from 56 per cent in 2007-08 to 59 per cent today, with those exercising more than 16 times increasing from 24 to 29 per cent. This far exceeds their older counterparts, with only 40 per cent of those aged 50-plus having exercised at all in the last three months.
Additionally, the number of young adults regularly indulging in fast food and sugary treats has decreased, with:
The average number of soft drinks being consumed per week shifting from 4.27 to 2.93.
The percentage of those visiting fast food outlets in the last four weeks decreasing by 5.8%.
'It's clear that lifestyle factors like diet and exercise play a role in managing mental health issues. For example, our data shows that depression is more prevalent amongst those who do not exercise at all, compared to those who do so regularly. What's surprising is that even though our data reveals today's young Aussies have better diet and exercise habits than nine years ago, they're suffering with their mental health more than ever," said Dr Swan.
Young Aussies putting down the drink
The Index shows the percentage of young Aussies conuming alcohol6 has dropped significantly over the last nine years, going from 61 per cent in 2007-08 to just 52 per cent today – lower than their parents' generation7, of which, 61 per cent are still consuming alcohol each week. Additionally, the average number of drinks consumed by young Aussies per week has shown a marked drop, from 7.26 in 2007-08 to just 5.15 in the latest Index. In line with the national trend, young Australians are also far less likely to smoke today than nine years ago, with just 13 per cent yet to kick the habit, compared with 22 per cent in 2007-08.
'We know alcohol can exacerbate mental health conditions, so it's great to see today's young Aussies are leading by example, drinking less than the same cohort nine years ago and the least of any other age group. Seeing that key lifestyle factors are improving – such as diet, exercise, and alcohol and tobacco intake – it begs questions around what is causing this significant upswing in mental health issues, particularly anxiety and panic attacks."
Are shifting lifestyles to blame?
Along with reliance on the internet doubling over the last nine years8, the latest Index shows young adults are continuing to break tradition and choose more flexible lifestyles, with the number of those undertaking part-time work and study on the rise. Thirty-seven per cent of 18-34 year-olds are now studying, compared with just 32 per cent in 2007-08, and the number of young adults employed part-time has increased from 24 to 28 per cent over the same period. Additionally, the data shows young people are continuing to opt for more fast-paced lifestyles, with the percentage of those now living in capital cities increasing from 66 to 71 per cent.
'Today's young adults are amongst the first to grow up with technology playing the ever-present role it now does – giving way to new and flexible ways of working, as seen in the rise of the freelancer economy. While this brings with it countless new opportunities, it also means today's young people are required to be far more adaptable and accept a less regimented way of living. We know that a lack of routine can heighten stress and symptoms of mental health issues, and this could be playing a role in the trends indicated in this Index.
'While more research needs to be done into the impact changing lifestyles could be having on our mental wellbeing, it's worth considering the potential connection as well as the role of increased awareness on the number of diagnoses we're seeing. Disconnecting for a while and practicing mindfulness techniques such as meditation could help, however if you're battling with your mental health, remember that your GP is always there for you."
If you think you are living with a mental health condition, speak to your GP or contact Beyond Blue. Or if you're a Medibank member, call our Health Advice line on 1800 644 325 to speak to one of our registered nurses – available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. For more information on mental health in Australia, visit https://www.medibank.com.au/livebetter/health-brief/.
Question: What were the main findings from the Medibank Better Health Index?
Dr Linda Swan: Our latest data has found that despite doing everything -right' - from exercising more and drinking less - young adults (aged 18-34) living with one or more mental health conditions (depression, anxiety and panic attacks) has reached an all-time high, at 1.7 million sufferers.
Question: Are you surprised by these findings especially regarding the state of young adults' (18-34) mental health in Australia?
Dr Linda Swan: Considering trends show that young Aussies are often trying to do things -right' from a health standpoint, these findings are particularly concerning. A potential contributor to why we're seeing this rise could be the influence various lifestyle factors - such as an increased reliance on technology and social media - could have on our wellbeing,
Question: Are you able to talk about why these figures have raised, significantly?
Dr Linda Swan: One reason for the increase in figures could be due to an increased awareness of conditions like anxiety, depression and panic attacks, meaning sufferers are more likely to acknowledge and report their symptoms than they were nine years ago. Another factor could be the rise in use of technology - it allows for new and flexible ways of working, as seen in the rise of the freelancer economy. And while this brings with it countless new opportunities, it also means today's young people are required to be far more adaptable and accept a less regimented way of living. Additionally, social media could be playing a role -- not only is excess screen time known to heighten stress and symptoms of mental health conditions, social media could also trigger feelings of anxiety.
Question: What advice do you have for parents who believe their children may have a mental health concern?
Dr Linda Swan: Always be supportive and if you notice your child has been experiencing symptoms of depression, or any mental health issue. If you have then it's time to seek help from their GP.
Question: What can we do to prevent mental health conditions?
Dr Linda Swan: While it can be hard to prevent the onset of mental health issues such as depression, anxiety and panic attacks, it's important to ensure you're looking after yourself - mentally and physically - to ensure you're not doing anything that could exacerbate these issues. Also, if you find yourself feeling anxious or overwhelmed, try practicing some mindfulness techniques such as meditation, and making an effort to disconnect every now and then.
Question: And, do you have advice on dealing with panic attacks?
Dr Linda Swan: Panic attacks are quite common - according to our data 499,000 young Aussies suffer from them, more than double than nine years ago (247,000 in 2007/08). Panic attacks can present with various symptoms, such as chest pains, feeling breathless, faint or dizzy – which can be frightening. Some symptoms (such as chest pains and breathlessness) can be indicative of other serious health conditions. If you experience chest pains or breathlessness, then one must seek urgent medical attention to rule out anything serious and be diagnosed with panic attacks. If you have been diagnosed with panic attacks, its best to seek help to manage the symptoms. Please don't ignore them or self medicate - seek help and speak to your GP about how you're feeling and how best to manage the episodes (including the need for medication).
Question: Why is it important for Medibank to conduct studies, such as this?
Dr Linda Swan: As a health insurer, it's our priority to better understand the health of Australia - from where it stands today, how it's changing, and the factors that are driving these shifts. The insights from the Medibank Better Health Index will not only help us better cater to the needs of our members, but we hope it will empower all Australians to make more informed decisions about their own health.
Interview by Brooke Hunter