The ‘perfect storm’ causing Australians psychological distress

Over the past 15 years, more Australians have experienced growing psychological distress, finds the annual HILDA survey, but it’s bigger than smartphones and social media

Sarah Marinos, University of Melbourne

Published 12 February 2024

In the past four weeks, how often have you felt tired for no good reason, or nervous, restless, depressed or hopeless? If you’ve lived through these feelings — which can be signs of psychological distress — you’re not alone.

According to the latest annual Household, Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia (HILDA) Survey, more and more of us are living with this issue.

If you’ve felt tired, nervous, restless, depressed or hopeless recently, you’re not alone. Picture: Getty Images

Between 2007 and 2021, the proportion of women living with psychological distress soared by around 63 per cent, while for men, the prevalence rose by around 51 per cent.

Psychological distress increases across the board

The HILDA Survey follows the lives of more than 17,000 Australians each year, over the course of their lifetime, collecting information on many aspects of life in Australia, including household and family relationships, income and employment, and health and education.

HILDA found that in 2021, 28.9 per cent of women and 22.7 per cent of men were in psychological distress.

In 2007, those figures were 17.7 per cent and 15.0 per cent respectively. This type of distress can place people at greater risk of developing mental illness in the future.

While psychological distress has risen across all age groups, the increase has been most significant in the 15 to 24 age group and among Australians aged 25 to 34.

Born in the nineties

Dr Ferdi Botha, HILDA author from the University of Melbourne’s Melbourne Institute: Applied Economic & Social Research, says this seems to be a cohort effect – that is the effect of being born in a certain time, region, or period and having experienced the same life experience.

“As people born in the 1990s age, their mental health appears to get worse. As people born in the 1960s age, their mental health seems to get better,” he says.

As lockdowns and social restrictions increased during the pandemic, so did psychological distress. Picture: Getty Images

Not surprisingly, as the COVID-19 pandemic overtook Australia and brought rolling lockdowns and social restrictions, psychological distress increased in all age groups.

However, it was most significant in the 15 to 24 age group where 42.3 per cent of younger Australians experienced psychological distress in 2021 – up from 18.4 per cent in 2011.

By 2021, the prevalence of distress for Australians aged 25 to 34 was also very high at 32.7 per cent.

For the 65 and over age group, the pandemic had little impact on distress levels, remaining at around 14.8 per cent.

More than the pandemic

However, the physical, social and emotional impacts of COVID-19 do not comprehensively explain the rising levels of psychological distress, particularly among younger Australians.

Dr Botha points out that the rise in distress appears to coincide with the roll-out of smartphones and social media platforms.

“There is a train of thought that this rising trend was triggered, in part, by smartphones and social media use. People have become more disconnected as a smartphone is no substitute for actual connection and social media brings status comparisons that can lead to people feeling dissatisfied and anxious,” says Dr Botha.

By 2026, it’s estimated that 23.6 million Australians will be using a smartphone and in 2017, that number already stood at approximately 19.9 million. In addition, more than 90 per cent of Australians between the ages of 12 and 55 say they have a social media account.

‘Eco-anxiety’ and ‘climate anxiety’ appear to particularly impact the mental wellbeing of younger people. Picture: Getty Images

An uncertain and complex future

Dr Botha believes that while smartphones and status anxiety triggered by social media may explain some cases of psychological distress, a perfect storm of factors is impacting the emotional wellbeing of Australians in their teens, 20s and 30s.

“There is a lot more financial and political uncertainty. As a young person, it is much harder to make a living and a lot of young people feel pessimistic about their future and where they are going,” says Dr Botha.

A growing body of research is also examining ‘eco-anxiety’ and ‘climate anxiety’, which appear to particularly impact the mental wellbeing of younger people, not only in Australia but worldwide.

Research published in the Lancet involving 10,000 young people aged 16 to 25 years found 59 per cent were very or extremely worried about climate change.

And more than 45 per cent said their feelings about climate change negatively affected their daily life and functioning.

Education and unemployment

HILDA found psychological distress is higher for people with lower education. Unemployed people are also more distressed than those in the workforce.

For example, unemployed females have a mean psychological distress score of 23.9, compared to 18.4 for females with a job.

Inequalities in education, income and employment opportunities all translate to inequalities in population mental health. Picture: Getty Images

Poor health and disability also increase the likelihood of living with distress. Women with a disability that moderately or severely restricts their ability to work report a mean distress score of 21.7, compared to 17.9 for women without a disability.

For men with a disability the mean distress score is 20.2 compared to 16.7 for males without a disability.

Associate Professor Tania King, Principal Research Fellow at Melbourne School of Population and Global Health at the University of Melbourne, says education, income, job security and access to healthcare are important social determinants of health, including mental health.

Living with inequality

Associate Professor King says inequalities across any of these areas can contribute to psychological distress for people of all ages.

However, in the current economic climate and with the rising cost of living, increasing home loan rates and costly rental charges, it may be younger Australians who are really feeling the impacts of these inequalities are the ones feeling most distressed about their future.

“Inequalities in education, income and employment opportunities all translate to inequalities in population mental health,” she says.

“More people are facing precarious or insecure employment, we have substantial inequalities in income and wealth distribution, and we continue to see inequities in education – our education system is one of the most unequal in the OECD.

“At a population level, fundamental shifts in these key structures are associated with shifts in mental health. Those effects aren’t always immediate but could be a factor we are seeing in the latest HILDA statistics.”

Previously, people may not have been willing to report psychological distress and to seek the help they need. Picture: Getty Images

Redressing the balance

Associate Professor King says further and deeper research is needed to gain a full and clear picture of what is underpinning the rising numbers of Australians experiencing psychological distress.

“When we have a clear understanding then we can develop the most effective strategies to address the problem,” she says.

“However, reducing the many inequities in society is key.”

The silver lining

There is a positive flipside to the rising number of Australians reporting psychological distress.

“People are now encouraged to say ‘I need help’”, says Dr Botha.

“There is a lot less stigma around mental health and people feel more comfortable saying ‘I’m distressed’ or ‘I’m depressed’. Previously, people may not have been willing to report it and to seek the help they need.

“It can only be a good thing that we are now able to be more open about mental health issues.”

If you or anyone you know needs help or support, you can call Lifeline on 13 11 14.

Banner: Getty Images

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