Pandemic’s mental health impact on young people a ‘national crisis’

Anastasia Tsirtsakis

21/10/2020 3:11:59 PM

New research shows high levels of psychological distress among young Australians, and experts say GPs will inevitably have to pick up the pieces.

Depressed teen girl
One-third of young Australians surveyed reported high or very high levels of distress.

One in two.
That is the number of young people that were unable to carry out their daily activities due to a decline in wellbeing, up from two in five in 2018.
That is among the findings from headspace’s 2020 National Youth Mental Health Survey of more than 1000 Australians aged 12–25.
Conducted between 25 May and 21 June, when much of the country was in or emerging from enforced lockdown restrictions, the research has confirmed concerns over the pandemic’s impact on the wellbeing and mental health of young Australians.
The survey found that psychological distress among young people remains high, with one-third (34%) reporting high or very high levels of distress, particularly among 15–17-year-old young men, at 29% up from 20% in 2018.
headspace CEO Jason Trethowan called the findings ‘highly concerning’.
‘One third of young Aussies are already reporting high or very high levels of psychological distress – treble what they were in 2007. But we’re also seeing the impacts of a really challenging year affecting their sense of general wellbeing,’ he said.
‘Young people are telling us COVID-19 has impacted their lives significantly. They’ve missed out on many of the usual social connections and school milestones this year, and this comes on top of some of the worst natural disasters our country has faced, including drought, floods and the bushfire crisis.’
The research also noted a drop in rates of coping or ‘dealing with life’ among 12–14-year-olds, with 63% coping well compared to 72% in 2018, as well as the 22–25-year-old cohort, down from 54% to 47%.
‘We’ve seen a drop in their ability to manage their daily activities at school, home and work,’ Mr Trethowan said. ‘That’s affecting their sense of wellbeing, their relationships and how they cope.’
Dr James Best, Chair of the RACGP Specific Interests Child and Young Person’s Health network, told newsGP the findings are ‘unsurprising, but very disturbing’.
‘This is a national crisis. It’s something that we have to address as a nation,’ he said.
‘We’ve seen natural disasters, we’ve seen COVID, we’ve seen political instability worldwide, a lot of people are very concerned about the future, including climate change and what it’s going to be like in 10 or 20 years’ time.
‘They’re just emerging into the world trying to establish career paths and hopefully work towards having a family of their own, and so they’re entering a world that is very uncertain.’
Dr Cathy Andronis agrees.
A GP and Chair of the RACGP Specific Interests Psychological Medicine network, she says the lack of physical interaction and connection with others has made it difficult for people to co-regulate their emotions.
‘This has been a universal experience, so no groups have escaped the consequences of the pandemic,’ she told newsGP.
‘[But] adolescence is a time for developing individual identity and learning how to interact with the wider world without our parents. Friends and peers are of paramount importance at this phase of life and the absence of peer connections at this critical time, especially with school disruptions, is distressing.
‘Additionally, if family relationships are strained, particularly if there is abuse, there may be no escape for some younger people.’
The release of the survey results coincides with National headspace Day, held annually during Mental Health Month.
The Federal Government has invested $5.7 billion in mental health support in 2020–21, and a National Youth Policy Framework is currently under development that will aim to inform how policies and programs support young Australians and improve their lives.
Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt acknowledged this week that the pandemic ‘has had an unprecedented impact on the lives of young people across Australia’, and urged people to seek professional support.
But, given more than 75% of mental health issues develop before the age of 25, there are fears for young people’s long term wellbeing if they do not receive timely support and treatment.
Dr Best said the data shows urgent need to act fast.
‘I think the Government is aware and has been making some moves in this direction of recent time. But it really needs some very serious funding and very serious policy to address it,’ he said.
‘Many use health services like headspace and CAMHS [child and adolescent mental health services], as community mental health services are often underfunded and overstretched and very hard to access, which really should not happen. So adequate funding of those sort of services is urgently required.’
That funding, according to Dr Best, needs to extend to general practice.
Mental health is the top reason people see their GP, and though working in youth mental health is important and rewarding work, Dr Best says it is important to recognise that it is also challenging.
‘Like in all areas of mental health, GPs do the heavy lifting, often because we’re left to do the lifting – there is no one else to do it. Every GP, I think, is aware of this,’ Dr Best said. 
‘If you get a teenager with a diagnosable mental health condition that is very confronting and very challenging. It’s really important work and it can be very rewarding, but it needs to be funded.
‘They can’t just expect us to keep picking up the pieces, and these worsening statistics are a reflection of that.’
Based in New South Wales where lockdown restrictions eased in July, Dr Best expressed concerns for his GP colleagues in Victoria as metropolitan Melbourne starts to ease out of more than three months of lockdown.
‘We’ve already seen data emerge that show quite a sharp increase in mental health problems nationally, and obviously in Victoria where they’ve had such a prolonged and deep shutdown, it’s inevitable that there are going to be some very serious mental health consequences,’ he said.
‘This sort of data really spotlights the fact that GPs have to, once again, pick up the ball and run with it when it comes to youth mental health.’
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