Young Minds Matter: Prevalence of mental disorders in Australian children and adolescents

Young Minds Matter: Prevalence of mental disorders in Australian children and adolescents

4 November 2015
Young Minds Matter: Prevalence of mental disorders in Australian children and adolescents

Recent research has revealed that almost one in seven 4-17 year-olds experienced a mental disorder in the past year.

This article was written by the Young Minds Matter research team.

Recent research has revealed that almost one in seven 4-17 year-olds experienced a mental disorder in the past year, which is equivalent to 560,000 Australian children and adolescents. Males were more likely than females to have experienced a mental disorder (16.3% compared with 11.5%), and ADHD was found to be the most common mental disorder among children and adolescents.

These findings are from the latest Young Minds Matter survey of 6,310 Australian families, which is the largest national survey that examines the mental health and wellbeing of Australian children and adolescents.

For the first time, these findings provide a national prevalence of 6.9% for anxiety disorders in young people. Four different types of anxiety disorders were assessed, with the most prevalent being separation anxiety disorder (4.3%), followed by social phobia (2.3%), generalised anxiety disorder (2.2%), and obsessive compulsive disorder (0.8%).

The impact of mental disorders was experienced across domains of functioning, including family, friends, school and self. Major depressive disorder had the greatest impact on functioning, and was associated with an average 20 days absent from school due to symptoms of the disorder.

Are mental disorders more prevalent in certain families?

Mental disorders were more common in families facing a range of disadvantages, including low income, unemployment and family breakup. For example, the prevalence of mental disorders in low-income families was twice that of those in high-income families (20.5% compared to 10.5%). Some of the highest rates of disorders were observed in families with a sole parent who was unemployed.

The prevalence of mental disorders was also higher in families with poor levels of family functioning. Of all families in the survey, 3.7% had a level of family functioning assessed as poor, indicating unhealthy family functioning likely to require clinical intervention. More than one third of children in these families had a mental disorder.

Are more young people experiencing mental disorders compared to previous decades?

There has been no great change in overall prevalence of mental disorders since the first survey was conducted in 1998; however, there have been some changes in prevalence of specific disorders. The prevalence of major depressive disorder in 6-17 years olds increased from 2.1% to 3.2%, with a greater increase among 12-17 year-olds (from 2.9% to 5.0%). The prevalence of ADHD decreased from 9.8% to 7.8%, with a greater decline in 6-11 year-olds (from 12.6% to 9.2%). There was also a slight decrease in conduct disorder from 2.7% to 2.1%.

Implications

Emotional and behavioural problems remain common in young people, and the prevalence of mental disorders in young people has remained relatively stable over the past 15 years. There is evidence of a small decline in externalising disorders such as ADHD and conduct disorder, offset by an increase in internalising disorders such as major depressive disorder. Anxiety disorders in children, measured for the first time in the study, were found to be almost as prevalent as ADHD.

There is a strong social gradient in the prevalence of mental disorders, suggesting that strategies aimed at reducing social disadvantage and addressing the effects of living in disadvantaged families, together with targeted service provision, may help to reduce the higher prevalence of mental disorders among children and adolescents in these families. Interventions aimed at improved family functioning may also have a similar effect.

References and further Information

A copy of the main report from the Young Minds Matter survey The Mental Health of Children and Adolescents together with a survey results query tool can be found on the Young Minds Matter website.

If you require assistance or would like to talk to a trained professional about the issues described on this page, please call Kids Helpline on 1800 55 1800 or Lifeline on 13 11 14.

The feature image is by Lisa Creech Bledsoe, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

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