28 Nov 2023

Millennials driving mental health decline: Study

28/11/2023 3:13:33 PM

Australians born in the 1990s reportedly have poorer mental health for their age than any previous generation and show no signs of improvement.

Woman standing in the middle of a crowded street.
Around 43% of Australians aged 16–85 years will experience a mental health disorder in their life.

It has been called the ‘Me, Me, Me Generation’, but a new study has shed a light on what is really troubling the Millennials of today.
Accounting for the population born between 1981 and 1996, Millennials, or Generation Y, have been identified as the Australian cohort experiencing the largest mental health burden.
The University of Sydney research found deteriorating mental health is particularly pronounced among people born in the 1990s, and to a lesser extent for those born in the decade earlier.
Published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) journal, its authors alternatively found little evidence that mental health is worsening with age for those born prior to the 1980s.
Trawling through two decades of data in a bid to investigate generational differences in mental health, researchers found Millennials are driving the increase in population-level mental ill-health.
It also found declines in mental health among young adults may not be expected to ‘spontaneously recover or disappear over time’, as previously thought by some.
Despite the findings, lead author Dr Richard Morris says much of the focus to date has been on the declining mental health of school-aged children and adolescents.
‘We expect their mental health to eventually improve as they enter adulthood, but this study shows this pattern is changing and that it is not just the kids we need to worry about,’ he said.
‘Our data not only shows a continuing decline in the mental health of the current crop of young people but continues to affect older generations today heading into their 40s and 50s.
‘We are not seeing the rebound out of young adulthood that previous generations saw as they aged.’
The study drew on data from the HILDA survey of 9000 households to analyse how a birth cohort’s mental health changed as they aged and compared the mental health of each cohort (those born in each decade from 1940 to 1990) at the same age.
It is estimated around 43% of Australians aged 16–85 years will experience a mental health disorder at some point in their life, with anxiety the most common among this age group.
Additionally, around 20% or 4.8 million Australians had a mental or behavioural condition, an increase from 18% in 2014–15.
RACGP General Practice Mental Health Standards Chair Associate Professor Morton Rawlin told newsGP the research mirrors what he is seeing in general practice.
‘I think it just means that there’s a lot of Millennials who feel very comfortable to find assistance, whereas some other groups within society perhaps don’t seek help quite as readily, so all power to the Millennials to be honest in accepting and getting good help,’ he said.
‘People are concerned about a whole raft of different things … but it’s actually really difficult to put a finger on exactly why.’
For senior author Professor Nick Glozier, the ‘why’ is a ‘very difficult question to answer’.
‘What we are looking for is a shared experience that is likely to have impacted all generations or age cohorts at that time, be it in different ways, with young people the most affected,’ he said.
The authors say more research is needed to better understand the trend, but that factors could include the advent and growth of social media, lack of physical activity and poor sleep, climate change, and the changing nature of work.
Associate Professor Rawlin said for many older generations, mental health remains a ‘taboo subject’.
‘We have been successful in educating people that it’s actually okay to speak up to health professionals about the fact that “I may not be okay”, whereas back in the 60s and 70s you just didn’t say anything about it,’ he said.
‘Patients sometimes come in and talk about things around stress, but years and years ago you wouldn’t have put a label of anxiety or depression on it and may have dealt with it in different ways.’
The RACGP has long been calling for more recognition of GPs’ role in mental health care, with it remaining the most common presentation in general practice.
‘For GPs, the first thing is acknowledging that a patient is having trouble and sometimes that acknowledgement is the start of the process,’ Associate Professor Rawlin said.
‘Then provide some advice about where people can get support and often the GP can give that support but also know that in some cases, a team-based approach is very appropriate.
‘And remember, the patient often has a support network, including family that you can also involve in their care.’
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