Anxiety and panic attacks have also skyrocketed amongst this age group, with both conditions doubling over the last nine years.
Anxiety and panic attacks have also skyrocketed amongst this age group, with both conditions doubling over the last nine years. Claudia Baxter

Young adults are fighting mental health issues and losing

DESPITE doing everything 'right' - from exercising more and drinking less - the number of young adults living with one or more mental health conditions has reached an all-time high, at 1.7 million, according to new data from the Medibank Better Health Index.

Released ahead of World Health Day - of which this year's theme is 'Depression: Let's Talk' - the data shows the number of 18-34 year-olds suffering from depression has increased significantly, from 738,000 in 2009-10 to more than one million in the latest Index.

Anxiety and panic attacks have also skyrocketed amongst this age group, with both conditions doubling over the last nine years.

ConditionIncidence of mental health conditions amongst 18-34 year olds2007-082015-16
.Percentage affected11%26%
AnxietyNumber of sufferers560,0001,476,000
.Percentage affected14%* (*from 2009-10)18%
DepressionNumber of sufferers738,0001,019,000
.Percentage affected                     5%9%
Panic attacksNumber of sufferers247,000499,000

Medibank Chief Medical Officer, Dr Linda Swan said, "We know mental health issues are on the rise, and worryingly, our data shows a particularly steep upward trend amongst young Aussies. We don't want to keep seeing these figures increase; if you're suffering with a mental health condition, take a lead from this year's World Health Day theme and chat to a loved one or professional about how you're feeling."

Diet and exercise: Young adults leading by example

Despite this upward trend towards mental health issues, young Aussies are more likely to keep healthy through exercise and diet than ever before.

The latest Index shows the percentage of 18-34 year-olds who've exercised in the last three months has risen from 56 per cent in 2007-08 to 59 per cent today, with those exercising more than 16 times increasing from 24 to 29 per cent.

This far exceeds their older counterparts, with only 40 per cent of those aged 50-plus having exercised at all in the last three months.

Additionally, the number of young adults regularly indulging in fast food and sugary treats has decreased, with:

  • The average number of soft drinks being consumed per week shifting from 4.27 to 2.934.
  • The percentage of those visiting fast food outlets in the last four weeks decreasing by 5.8%.

"It's clear that lifestyle factors like diet and exercise play a role in managing mental health issues. For example, our data shows that depression is more prevalent amongst those who do not exercise at all, compared to those who do so regularly.

What's surprising is that even though our data reveals today's young Aussies have better diet and exercise habits than nine years ago, they're suffering with their mental health more than ever," Dr Swan said.

Young Aussies putting down the drink

The Index shows the percentage of young Aussies consuming alcohol has dropped significantly over the last nine years, going from 61 per cent in 2007-08 to just 52 per cent today - lower than their parents' generation, of which, 61 per cent are still consuming alcohol each week.

Additionally, the average number of drinks consumed by young Aussies per week has shown a marked drop, from 7.26 in 2007-08 to just 5.15 in the latest Index.

In line with the national trend, young Australians are also far less likely to smoke today than nine years ago, with just 13 per cent yet to kick the habit, compared with 22 per cent in 2007-08.

"We know alcohol can exacerbate mental health conditions, so it's great to see today's young Aussies are leading by example, drinking less than the same cohort nine years ago and the least of any other age group. Seeing that key lifestyle factors are improving - such as diet, exercise, and alcohol and tobacco intake - it begs questions around what is causing this significant upswing in mental health issues, particularly anxiety and panic attacks."

Are shifting lifestyles to blame?

Along with reliance on the internet doubling over the last nine years, the latest Index shows young adults are continuing to break tradition and choose more flexible lifestyles, with the number of those undertaking part-time work and study on the rise.

Thirty-seven per cent of 18-34 year-olds are now studying, compared with just 32 per cent in 2007-08, and the number of young adults employed part-time has increased from 24 to 28 per cent over the same period.

Additionally, the data shows young people are continuing to opt for more fast-paced lifestyles, with the percentage of those now living in capital cities increasing from 66 to 71 per cent.

"Today's young adults are amongst the first to grow up with technology playing the ever-present role it now does - giving way to new and flexible ways of working, as seen in the rise of the freelancer economy," Dr Swan said.

"While this brings with it countless new opportunities, it also means today's young people are required to be far more adaptable and accept a less regimented way of living. We know that a lack of routine can heighten stress and symptoms of mental health issues, and this could be playing a role in the trends indicated in this Index.

"While more research needs to be done into the impact changing lifestyles could be having on our mental wellbeing, it's worth considering the potential connection as well as the role of increased awareness on the number of diagnoses we're seeing. Disconnecting for a while and practicing mindfulness techniques such as meditation could help, however if you're battling with your mental health, remember that your GP is always there for you."

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