Youth mental health a hidden danger sign

Dinka's picture

The orthodox, or official, view of the health and wellbeing of young Australians is of continuing improvement.

As the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare has stated, young people 'generally enjoy a level of health that is good and has improved in recent times, as indicated by levels of mortality, morbidity and disability'.

The official view draws largely on a continuing decline in mortality (and a corresponding rise in life expectancy), which underestimates the major contributions that non-fatal, chronic health problems now make to the burden of disease among young people, measured as both death and disability.

In important instances (such as depression, anxiety, diabetes), these problems are worsening.

Historically, the health of young Australians reflects the overall trends in population health in the developed world.

The toll of infectious diseases has fallen as a result of medical advances such as antibiotics and vaccines, and improved hygiene, nutrition and living and working conditions; chronic, non-communicable diseases have become more common.

Today, the major causes of death among young people are road accidents, suicide, cancer and accidental poisoning (including drug overdoses).

Building on the long-term decline in infectious disease deaths, we have seen a fall in deaths from road accidents and other injuries over the past 30 years.

In the past decade we have also seen a decline in deaths from suicide and drugs, which had previously been increasing rapidly (at least among young males).

Surveys of young people consistently show that more than 80 per cent say that they are healthy, happy and satisfied with their lives.

However, other health indicators show many young people are not faring well.

The adverse trends in young people's health range across both physical and mental problems, and from relatively minor but common complaints to rare but serious problems.

A fifth to a third of young people are experiencing significant psychological stress and distress at any one time, with some estimates of the prevalence of a more general malaise (frequent headaches, indigestion and sleeplessness) reaching 50 per cent.

Young people are experiencing mental health problems at higher rates than older age groups, and retaining their increased risk beyond youth into older age.

Almost a third of young males and a quarter of young females (aged 12-24) are overweight or obese, and these proportions are rising.

The changes place young people at risk of a wide range of health problems later in life, including diabetes, heart disease and some cancers.

A wide range of factors have been implicated in the adverse patterns and trends in young people's health: increasing work-life strains, education pressures, family breakdown, mobility; excessive materialism and individualism; increasing media intrusion and penetration of our lives; the decline of religion; changes in diet; links between drug use and mental illness; and environmental degradation.

Historically, health professions, notably medicine, have been part of a broad, progressive movement that has increased life expectancy and quality of life. Today, they are, at best, countering the growing harm to health of adverse social trends.

At worst, they are becoming part of the problem because of an overemphasis on an individual, biomedical, disease-centred approach to health (its benefits notwithstanding), and their political advocacy for this perspective at the expense of a more social, preventative model.

This situation suits governments because it limits the political significance of health.

The politics of health is much more than the politics of healthcare services; it should be the politics of everything.

In other words, the defining goal of government should be to create health, not wealth. © 2007 Australian Broadcasting Corporation

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