11 Feb 2020

What's driving the deterioration in youth mental health?

From Nine To Noon, 9:33 am on 11 February 2020

Ministry of Health figures show a growing number of our 15 to 24-year-olds are struggling with their mental health. 

In 2012, five percent of this group reported psychological distress and in 2017 this figure rose to almost 12 percent.

Of those, one in ten seeking professional help will face a wait of at least two months.

New Zealand also has the highest youth suicide rate in the OECD.

Dr Margreet de Looze, a lead researcher on the World Health Organisation's Health Behaviour in School Age Children survey (HBSC) and Professor Anthony Jorm from Melbourne University's Centre for Mental Health.

They’re both taking part in a University of Otago Wellington Public Health summer school.

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Photo: Public Health Summer School - Otago University

Overseas studies looking at mental health in this group have been taking place since the beginning of the 20th Century, de Looze told Kathryn Ryan, but it was in 2010 that a decline in mental health was first noticed.

“Many people link this to the rise of social media and smart phones, that was indeed the time the iPhone was released in 2007 and by 2010, 2012, most adolescents had a smart phone and had access to some social media.”

While some studies make this link, there are inconsistencies in the literature and we need to take a nuanced look at this before drawing firm conclusions, she says.

A decline in mental health is measured by asking people how often they have psychosomatic or psychological complaints such as headaches, nervousness, backaches and feeling low, says de Looze.

“We also ask them to evaluate their life.”

To many young people, the idea that you can become whoever you want to become is very appealing, she says, but it also implies that if you don’t become who you wanted to be that it’s all on you.

Adverse childhood experiences contribute to mental health problems across someone’s life span, Jorm says.

“We’re not going to get big impacts on the prevalence of mental health problems until we can do something about those big drivers.”

Research just released by Netsafe shows that almost half of all teenagers have seen harmful content online, such as videos of extreme violence and guides on how to harm themselves.

“Parents who can talk to their children about these kind of things, that’s actually one of the strongest predictors of health and wellbeing across the line and I think indeed, it’s very important for parents to do this and monitor a little bit if they see their child is starting to show symptoms, it’s not interested in hobbies any more…but overall, opening up is very important," says de Looze.

When we deal with chronic physical illness there is a balance system; there’s a treatment system but also a prevention system, says Jorm.

With mental health, people don’t have the same knowledge, there are a whole lot of things we could do but they aren’t widely known, he says.