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Down and out, down under: Youth mental health in Australia

This article was originally published by the UK Intergenerational Foundation here.


You may have seen the Buzzfeed article describing Millennials as the burnout generation. This isn’t a simple a case of Millennial whinging. Every day around me I see young people struggling with anxiety and depression.


One in seven young Australians experience a mental health condition. Suicide is the biggest killer of young Australians, accounting for the deaths of more young people than car accidents. In 2017, Mission Australia found out that 35% of young Australians identify “stress” as their biggest health concern. And the situation is worsening: in 2018 the number of young people reporting concerns about mental health jumped by 10% during the year.


The Australian government is finally tackling this mental health crisis and has announced $52 million in funding to the youth mental health services. This is a much-needed funding boost for frontline services which haven’t kept up with demand in Australia. While additional spending on mental health is always welcome, we need to go even further to address the structural economic issues that are contributing to a surge in mental health concerns among young Australians.


Relationship between mental health and inequalities


Causes of inequalities in mental health are the same as those which affect other aspects of the social distribution of health: poverty, unemployment, poor working conditions, poor housing. A number of studies have looked at variations and inequalities in mental health across “welfare regimes”. These are clusters of countries ranked according to their generosity of social protection, levels of social investment, and quality of working conditions. Those which are more generous, and with better conditions, had narrower inequalities in mental health as they reduce the negative impact of poverty, unemployment and other “social determinants of health”.


In report after report, the Netherlands tops OECD countries for high life-satisfaction among its young people. This contrasts starkly with the picture in countries like Britain, where depression and anxiety are on the rise among teenagers, and Australia, where the number of young people taking their own lives has risen sharply. There is little unemployment in the Netherlands, relatively low inequality and a healthy economy, while in Australia young people are struggling with underemployment, unaffordable housing and a retreating welfare system.


Another systemic issue identified as contributing to poorer mental health is young people’s relationship with the digital world. Studies have shown the impact of technology on young people’s identities, and the complexities around young people feeling the need to put a part or a version of their life online – a space that is largely uncontrolled and unregulated.


Treating the youth mental health crisis as a symptom of intergenerational inequality


Many potential solutions have been proposed for this mental health crisis – from self-care to questions around whether Millennials can be trusted with their own social media profiles. I propose a less headline-grabbing but more practical and long-lasting solution: tax reform.


Think of what the Australian government could be doing:

  • Addressing the inequalities in wealth between older households and younger households through taxation reform of the superannuation scheme and home ownership.

  • Boosting welfare for unemployed people and youth.

  • Preparing young people for the future through government spending on education and the future of work. (Young people remain particularly exposed to financial downturns and the Australian government’s recent personal income tax cuts and the long-standing age-based tax concessions reduce the potential for future action to protect young workers against rising joblessness.)

  • Equipping young people with the language and techniques to deal with the pressures of a technological future so they benefit from the good and have the skills to protect themselves from the bad of a digitised world.


The negative impact of the “social determinants of health” in Australia can be reduced through well designed structural and systemic policy change.


Tax reform as a preventative mental health approach


Now is the time to act. Australia is not experiencing the identity crises currently paralysing the US and Britain. We are a prosperous country and it is time to share that prosperity with all generations. Spending $52m on treatment for youth mental health is a good first step, but we can afford to do more.


As we head into an election year, Australians should ask government to focus on systemic prevention, rather than treating the symptoms.


It might sound unconventional – but tax reform may be the answer to the youth mental health crisis in Australia.

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Think Forward is an advocacy group for young Australians who want our politicians to prioritise and take action on issues of  intergenerational fairness

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