Young Minds Matter: Depression, psychological distress, self-harming and suicidal behaviour in Australian adolescents

Content type
Short article

February 2016

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

A recent national survey of young people’s mental health and wellbeing, Young Minds Matter, found high levels of major depressive disorder, distress, self-harming and suicidal behaviours among adolescents - especially teenage girls.

Just under 3,000 young people aged 11-17 years completed the questionnaire in private on a tablet computer. Their parents did not see the responses.

Major depressive disorder

One in thirteen (7.7%) 11‑17 year-olds met the diagnostic criteria for major depressive disorder in the previous 12 months. Major depressive disorder was more common in females and older adolescents.

The prevalence of major depressive disorder was far higher when young people provided the information themselves than when their parents or carers did. Two thirds of adolescents with major depressive disorder1 said that their parents only knew “a little” or “not at all” about their feelings (37.6% and 29.5% respectively).

Psychological distress, self-harming and suicidal behaviours

One fifth of 11-17 year-olds reported high (13.3%) or very high (6.6%) levels of psychological distress.

Participants were asked if they had ever attempted self-harm or suicide. One in ten (11.9%) 12-17 year-olds reported to have ever self-harmed and 8% reported self-harm in the past 12 months. A further 7.5% reported that they “prefer not to say”, which suggests that these estimates may be conservative.

In the past 12 months, 7.5% of 12-17 year-olds had seriously considered attempting suicide, and 2.4% reported attempting suicide.

Strong links between major depressive disorder, self-harm and suicidal behaviours

The highest rates of self-harm and suicidal behaviours were among adolescents with major depressive disorder. Reports of self-harm were related to engaging in suicidal behaviours, especially in the presence of major depressive disorder. As the number of reported self-harm occasions increased, so did the proportion of those thinking about suicide and attempting suicide.

An alarming picture of distress among 16-17 year-old females

The results of the survey are particularly concerning for young females. The findings revealed:

  • 19.6% of 16-17 year-old females experienced major depressive disorder compared to 7.2% of 16-17 year-old males.
  • More than one third of 16-17 year-old females had high or very high levels of psychological distress compared to adolescent boys of the same age (36.2% compared with 17.6%).
  • 17.3% of 16-17 year-old females had abnormal levels of emotional and behavioural difficulties compared to 7.3% of males of the same age.
  • One fifth (22.8%) of 16-17 year-old females reported that they had ever self-harmed, and 16.8% reported self-harm in the previous 12 months. For 16-17 year-old males, 9.1% had ever self-harmed, and 6.2% had self-harmed in the past 12 months.
  • Around one in seven (15.4%) 16-17 year-old females had seriously considered attempting suicide and one in twenty (4.7%) had attempted suicide in the past 12 months.


Based on adolescent self-reports, there are clear associations between feeling depressed or distressed and self-harming and suicidal thoughts. This presents clinical implications for detection, monitoring and treatment, and a need for broader strategies that consider early intervention and prevention of self-harm and suicide.

While the accessibility and range of services available to young people for help with mental health problems has increased considerably over the past 15 years, the health, education and welfare sectors need to be supported to promote mental health literacy and help-seeking behaviour, and to provide timely and appropriate treatment for young people and their families.

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.

If you are a young person aged 12-25 and are worried about your mental health, you can also use eheadspace. eheadspace is a confidential, free and secure space where young people or their family can chat, email or speak on the phone with a qualified youth mental health professional.

The feature image is by Ed Yourdon, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

1. Identified by self-report on the Diagnostic Interview Schedule for Children – Version IV (DISC-IV) Major Depressive Disorder Module.