Successive Australian generations suffering worse mental health than the one before, study shows

<span>Photograph: SeventyFour/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: SeventyFour/Getty Images

Each successive generation of Australians since the 1950s is suffering worse mental health than the generation who came before them, new research has shown.

A study led by the University of Sydney has found that people born in the 1990s have poorer mental health for their age than any previous generation and are not experiencing better mental health as they age, as earlier generations have.

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The study, published Tuesday in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, tracked the changes in the mental ill-health of 27,572 Australians over 20 years from 2001 to 2020.

Drawing on the nationally representative household, income and labour dynamics in Australia survey, researchers assessed how the mental health of those born in each decade from the 1940s to 90s changed as they aged and compared the mental health of each birth cohort at the same age.

Dr Richard Morris, the lead author of the study and a senior research fellow in the faculty of medicine and health, said mental health over a person’s lifespan was thought to be U-shaped: good during one’s school years, then declining towards middle age before recovering.

Previous research comparing generations might find someone in their 50s to be happier than someone in their 30s, but was not able to determine whether this was due to the difference in age or the difference in their birth cohort, Morris said. “This is the first time we’ve really been able to locate it as a birth cohort difference.”

“The mental health of younger generations of people born in the 1990s – and to some extent, the 1980s – is worse age-for-age compared to older generations, and they’re not showing that upswing that we typically see in those older generations.”

The researchers found that the decline in mental health from about 2010 was also experienced by those born in the 80s and, to a lesser extent, the 70s.

Although those born after 1999 were not included in the study, it notes that the trend of worsening mental health is “even more marked in recent adolescent cohorts”.

Prof Patrick McGorry, a professor of youth mental health at the University of Melbourne, director of the board of the national youth mental health foundation Headspace and the executive director of Orygen, said the study “provides really hard data in support of the sense we’re in a global youth mental health crisis”.

“Something’s gone very, very seriously wrong with our society and the way we’re heading and the way we look after our next generations,” he said. “It’s not just the standard risk factors for mental illness that are at work here. It’s something new.”

McGorry said megatrends – including the undermining of public education, the “rampant” wealth transfer from young people to older people, climate change and social media – meant “the bottom line is young people’s lives and their futures are much more precarious”.

Dr Peter Baldwin, a senior research fellow at the Black Dog Institute, attributed the mental health of those born in the 90s getting worse much quicker – compared with those born in the 80s – to the different types of technology that existed when the cohorts came of age.

While people born in 80s experienced web 1.0, with static information and websites, those born in the 90s grew up with social media and interactive technology – bringing with it a “flood” of social comparisons which were really bad for mental health, Baldwin said.

“What young brains really want to know is: ‘Do I belong?’ and ‘Am I good enough?’ And if you open Instagram and see 100 supermodels, athletes and entrepreneurs, it’s going to be a really tough yard stick to measure up against.”

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Baldwin also believed there was a difference in how younger Australians people born from the 90s onwards were taught to deal with psychological distress, with the rise of “safety-ism” – the idea they have to be psychologically safe at all times – becoming a barrier to building resilience. Baldwin said many were becoming more and more sensitive to social distress, disagreements with other people or being exposed to points of view they disagree with.

The influence of the prevalence inflation hypothesis – whether younger generations having greater language and literacy around their mental health makes it easier to report – could be a direction for future research, Morris said.

McGorry said in the medium term, mental health problems could be prevented through tackling megatrends contributing to them, while immediately there needed to be greater investment in youth mental health services “otherwise a lot of young people are going to die unnecessarily and many, many more are going to have their futures blighted by poorly treated mental illness”.

He stressed it was also a “serious threat to the economic future of Australia”, because older people were dependent on younger generations to support them.

  • Crisis support services can be reached 24 hours a day: Lifeline 13 11 14; Suicide Call Back Service 1300 659 467; Kids Helpline 1800 55 1800; MensLine Australia 1300 78 99 78; Beyond Blue 1300 22 4636