The generation driving a ‘megatrend’ of poor mental health in Australia

As individuals, we have unique experiences that affect our mental health and wellbeing, but what about the collective experiences that influence each generation?

The mental health of Australians has been deteriorating since around 2010 and Millennials are the ones driving this decline, according to a large new study published today in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

the generation driving a ‘megatrend’ of poor mental health in australia

The “smart” generation may also be a sad generation.

“There’s been a lot of talk and observations in the scientific literature and in the media about these megatrends [of poor mental health] that have taken place around the world in Germany, UK, the USA,” says lead author Dr Richard Morris, senior research fellow in the University of Sydney’s Faculty of Medicine and Health. “And no one had ever really shown it in Australia.”

For the study, Morris and his team analysed the mental health data of 27,572 Australians for 20 years, from 2001 to 2020.

They found that people born in the 1990s and, to a lesser extent, those born in the 1980s, have poorer mental health for their age than any previous generation, and do not seem to recover as they get older.

“There is little evidence that mental health is worsening with age for people born prior to the 1980s,” the authors add.

So, what is going on with the Millennials? Though the paper didn’t seek to explain the causes, there are hypotheses.

“Something happened in the first decade of the millennium,” says Morris. “And we’ve started to see the effects in about 2009, 2010, and then they’ve persisted.”

Around this time, there were many changes in the social media landscape – Facebook, which launched in 2004, was in full swing; the first iPhone had been released; Instagram launched in 2010 and Snapchat a year later; while the retweet function on Twitter, which debuted three years earlier, was rolled out in 2009.

Along with the human disconnect and proliferation of cyberbullying, it has left us more exposed.

“I think there’s some risk of exceeding people’s cognitive bandwidth with our hyper-connected societies,” says Dr Grant Blashki, the lead clinical advisor at Beyond Blue. “Younger generations certainly are getting exposure to every possible bad thing that’s happening in the world on a moment by moment basis in a way that my generation, older generations didn’t experience.”

There was also the fallout from the 2008 global financial crisis, subsequent job insecurity and a rise in unaffordable housing.

“Employment has become more tenuous and contractual and housing for some is now only a dream,” says Dr Mike Musker, from the Mental Health and Suicide Prevention Research and Education Group at the University of South Australia.

“Abraham Maslow identified a hierarchy of needs that are required for positive mental health, basic needs like food, shelter, employment and friendship. Homeownership and a steady job used to be the mainstay, essential life anchors.”

A “rising intensity” of climate anxiety may be compounding these problems, suggests Melissa Haswell, a professor of practice in environmental wellbeing at the University of Sydney.

“Fear of pollution, grief at the loss of diversity and natural spaces and experience of the horrors of unprecedented weather extremes are in our faces daily,” says Haswell.

Another possibility that Morris finds “particularly intriguing” is the increase in mental health literacy.

“It’s driven by people’s ability to recognise it,” he says, suggesting that rates of poor mental health may also reflect our ability to identify how we are feeling and talk about it.

The explanations have ranged wide and far, adds Morris: “Everyone has their pet theory.”

As for what to do about it, he says the next step is to better understand the causes of what they have observed. “If we can locate the source, then we can start to propose solutions, or at least come to terms with our futures.”

While many experts are calling for more funding for mental health interventions, Morris says: “It may be a Bandaid if we are not treating the causes.”

Blashki agrees: “Are we in the business of just fishing people out of the water or are we going to also go and fix the bridge?”

He cautions against “therapeutic nihilism about a generation” by interpreting the findings as a sign people won’t ultimately feel better.

“As a clinician, I’m always more focused on the hopeful approach to improving mental health, whatever the background, whatever the setting, whatever the generation,” Blashki says.

“People are flexible and adaptable. And I’m always amazed as a clinician about people’s capacity to heal and recover and reframe things.”

Morris echoes the sentiment.

“There are at least two sides to our subjective wellbeing – a rationale, cognitive evaluation of our achievements or prospects, versus an affective response to our immediate circumstances and environment (e.g., happiness),” he explains.

“Our mental health scores tend to reflect the latter rather than the former, and we may need to look at our immediate environment, family and social relationships to improve or safeguard our own happiness.”

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