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Mental health problems are more common among young Australians, a national survey suggests

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Younger Australians are more likely to be anxious and depressed and also to binge drink and vape than older people, the latest statistics office health survey suggests.

Nearly 19% of 15-24-year-olds had anxiety and 14% depression in 2020-21, according to the latest Australian Bureau of Statistics National Health Survey published on Monday.

Those numbers steadily declined as people got older, and by the time Australians turned 75, just over 7% had anxiety and the same percentage had depression.

Patrick McGorry, chief executive of the youth mental health organization Orygen and a professor of youth mental health at the University of Melbourne, said a “perfect storm” hit people when they were young.

Related: When a teen tells you about their mental health issues, you need to listen to the expert: themselves | Sarah Lee

“All disorders,” from anxiety and depression to eating disorders, emerged from puberty to their peak when people were in their 20s, he said. “It’s a combination of biological and socioeconomic factors.”

People were coming of age, dealing with moving house, finding their identities, trying to start a career, and finding an intimate partner.

“There’s a lot of developmental stress, and the body and the brain are still developing in a physical sense,” McGorry said.

“AND [there are] headwinds like pandemics, climate change, world wars, and the transfer of wealth…from the young to the baby boomers. They can’t buy houses and are under a lot of financial stress.”

On top of all that, McGorry said, younger people were “too old for children’s services and too young for adult services.” He said Headspace, where he is a founding board member, had developed a plan to overcome that problem, but needed funds to expand.

He is hopeful that whoever wins the May election will get the money. “I feel like I’m pushing an open door,” she said.

The ABS found that 10.7% of adults were daily smokers; for those between 18 and 24 years old it was 8.3%. While 83.3% of the younger age group had never smoked, 21.7% had tried vaping compared to just under 10% of adults overall. It was the first time that ABS surveyed people’s vaping habits.

Laura Bajurny, a spokeswoman for the Alcohol and Drug Foundation, said nicotine- and nicotine-free vaporizers could easily be obtained online by young people, both were harmful and were being marketed aggressively.

“Social media marketing around vaping has been really aggressive and targeted at young people,” he said.

The ABS survey also found that one in four Australians drink too much.

About one in three men drink more than 10 standard drinks a week, compared to about one in five women.

People in the 18-24 age group were less likely than average to have had more than 10 drinks in the past week, but more likely to have had five or more on any given day at least once a month.

That’s consistent with “episodic heavy drinking,” Bajurny said.

“The tragedy is that that kind of heavy drinking is linked to some of the most common causes of death among young people: accidents and injuries, including drowning, car accidents.

“We know that alcohol use is the second leading modifiable risk factor for suicide and self-harm in men.”

It also found that nearly eight in 10 Australians have a long-term health condition. The conditions listed include cancer, diabetes, and asthma, as well as nearsightedness or farsightedness, hay fever, and allergies.

Of the 78.6% of people who reported a condition in 2020-21, about half had a chronic condition.

The data was collected differently for the 2020-21 year and cannot be compared to previous years, ABS said.


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