The Mission Australia Youth Survey Report 2017 recently asked young people age 15-19 to rank their top personal concerns during the past year. The results were with consistent with previous years, showing that the major concerns for males and females were coping with stress, school/study problems, body image and depression. Participants ranked their concerns regarding twelve issues on a five-point scale from ‘not at all concerned’ through to ‘very concerned’ and ‘extremely concerned’.
The Alliance of Girls' Schools Australasia has provided the latest Research Summary eBrief on 18 April, 2018.
Overall, 45.3% of young people indicated that coping with stress was a major concern (i.e. they were ‘very’ or ‘extremely’ concerned); 35.6% named school or study problems as an issue of major concern; 31.1% were very or extremely concerned about body image; and nearly a quarter (23.7%) indicated depression was a major concern. However, these figures hide significant gender differences showing that females were much more concerned about these four issues than males:
• 58.2% of females indicated that coping with stress was a major concern, including those who were very concerned (31.1%) or extremely concerned (27.1%), compared with 26.8% of males (16.7% very concerned and 10.1% extremely concerned).
• 43.8% of females were concerned about school or study problems (25.9% very concerned and 17.9% extremely concerned), compared with 23.8% of males (15.2% very concerned and 8.6% extremely concerned).
• 40.9% of females were worried about body image (23.3% very concerned and 17.6% extremely concerned) compared with 16.8% of males (very concerned 10.9% and 5.9% extremely concerned).
• 27.9% of females held concerns about depression (15.0% very concerned and 12.9% extremely concerned) compared with 16.4% of males (9.2% very concerned and 7.2% extremely concerned).
Mission Australia and the Black Dog Institute’s Youth Mental Health Report: Youth Survey 2012-2016 found that rates were even higher for the 28.6% of females found to have met the criteria for a “probable serious mental illness”. For these females, who comprise over one-quarter of 15-19 year olds, 82.8% were ‘very’ or ‘extremely’ concerned about coping with stress, 65.9% were concerned about school or study problems, 63.9% were concerned about body image, and 61.5% were concerned about depression.
The Youth Mental Health Report revealed that twice as many females as males (28.6% vs. 14.1%) met the criteria for having a probable serious mental illness, with a “much more marked” increase among females from 22.5% in 2012 to 28.6% in 2016. Diagnostic data from the second Australian Child and Adolescent Survey of Mental Health and Wellbeing shows that females aged 12-17 are more likely to have anxiety or a major depressive disorder than males.
The Youth Mental Health Report authors write that:
This may be associated with increasing family breakdown, school pressures, and western ideals of appearance, all of which have been shown to impact young females more than young males. Additionally, social and hormonal mechanisms have been found to increase vulnerability to depressive symptoms in young females at puberty compared to young males, reversing a trend towards higher rates of depression in boys during pre-pubescence.
Research shows that dissatisfaction with body image peaks during adolescence when young people’s bodies enter puberty and go through changes, and that this body dissatisfaction is associated with greater mental distress. It is currently unknown, however, whether body dissatisfaction causes psychological distress or whether a young person’s psychological distress causes them to be dissatisfied with their body image.
With percentages of females aged 15-19 who are ‘very’ or ‘extremely’ concerned about body image sitting at 40.9% of all females and 63.9% of those with a probable serious mental illness, Mission Australia and the Black Dog Institute suggest that social pressures such as body image need to be tackled to address the large gender disparity in the observed rates of probable serious mental illness. They call for more to be done, particularly by the media, to promote a positive body image for all young people through reducing digital manipulation of images and using a greater diversity of body shapes and sizes.
With young people consistently ranking coping with stress, school/study problems, body image and depression as their top concerns, Mission Australia and the Black Dog Institute have called for a broad approach encompassing young people, parents, schools, health care services and governments to improve the mental health of young people. Schools are critical to this effort in providing programs and interventions to improve mental health and mental health awareness, including in relation to coping with stress and promoting a positive body image that reflects the diversity of our entire society. Schools are also ideally placed to encourage help-seeking, establish pathways to professional support, and help reduce the stigma of mental illness. With research showing that about half of all lifetime mental disorders emerge by the age of 14, schools which emphasise mental wellbeing and resilience play a key role in creating a supportive environment that helps to scaffold students for life.
Mission Australia and Black Dog Institute. (2016). Youth Mental Health Report: Youth Survey 2012 -2016. Sydney: Mission Australia.
Bullot, A., Cave, L., Fildes, J., Hall, S., and Plummer, J. (2017). Mission Australia’s 2017 Youth Survey Report. Sydney: Mission Australia.
Both reports are available to download from the Mission Australia website:
Overall, 45.3% of young people indicated that coping with stress was a major concern.