In order to bring you the best possible user experience, this site uses Javascript. If you are seeing this message, it is likely that the Javascript option in your browser is disabled. For optimal viewing of this site, please ensure that Javascript is enabled for your browser.

Youth mental health

"We all feel sad, anxious or irritable sometimes, but when these feelings persist and start to impact on a person's ability to enjoy life or perform their day-to-day activities, it's time to seek professional help. Youth mental illness is a growing problem in Australia, affecting an estimated one in four young people. Alarmingly, up to 70 percent of these young people will not seek or receive help," Dr Christine Bennett, Chair, Medical Advisory Panel, Bupa Australia.

What is mental health?1

Mental health refers to someone's emotional and social wellbeing. With good mental health, we manage the normal ups and downs of life but if our mental health declines, it can affect our feelings, thoughts and actions, and potentially lead to mental illness.

Mental illness (or mental ill health) can have a wide range of social and physical consequences and can lead to problems with alcohol and other drugs, low self-esteem, risky and anti-social behaviour, school-drop-out and unemployment, and even an increased risk of suicide.

Statistics on youth mental illness

  • Depression is common. Among young Australians aged 12-25 years, depression is the most common mental health problem.2
  • In 2008, more than a quarter (26%) of people aged 16-24 years had some symptoms of a mental disorder over a 12 month period.3
  • One in four young people have experienced a depressive disorder by the end of their adolescence.4
  • One in 10 young people aged 18-25 years, and one in 25 teenagers (13-17 years) will experience an anxiety disorder in any 12 months.5
  • 75% of adult mental health disorders present before a person reaches 25 years. 6
  • 70% of young people who experience mental health and substance use problems don't seek help.7

What are the most common mental illnesses?

A number of mental health issues affect young people, with the most common being depression and anxiety.

Depression is the most common youth mental health issue, affecting around 160,000 people aged 16-24 years8.Having depression is not just feeling down for a day or two, it's a serious condition with symptoms that can go on for two weeks or longer.

Clinical depression is a medical condition that significantly affects the way someone feels, causing a persistent lowering of mood. Depression is often accompanied by a range of other physical and psychological symptoms that can interfere with the way a person is able to function in their everyday life.

The symptoms of depression generally react positively to treatment. Young women are more likely than young men to get depression, but young men are less likely than women to talk about their moods or how they feel emotionally. This is one reason why their depression is often not picked up by themselves or by others, including their doctors.

Normal, healthy anxiety usually only lasts moments to a day or so and doesn't affect a person's health or day-to-day life. But if a person has an anxiety disorder, the level of anxiety can be overwhelming and can go on for weeks, months or longer.

There are many types of anxiety disorders and they each have a range of signs and symptoms. A person with an anxiety disorder will feel distressed a lot of the time for no apparent reason, or disproportionately to whatever seems to be causing the stress. An episode can be so severe it is immobilising.

A person might have persistent, excessive or unrealistic worries (generalised anxiety disorder), compulsions and obsessions which they can't control (obsessive compulsive disorder), intense excessive worry about social situations (social anxiety disorder), panic attacks (panic disorder), an intense, irrational fear of everyday objects and situations (phobia) or other distress syndromes.

What are the symptoms of mental illness?9

Different people express depression and anxiety in many different ways, symptoms can include:

  • Trouble falling or staying asleep, or experiencing unsatisfying sleep.
  • Feeling tired, grumpy, irritable, tearful or upset most of the time.
  • Feeling restless, keyed up or on edge.
  • Losing interest in things they used to enjoy, and have trouble starting and completing assignments or work.
  • Being forgetful, losing concentration and easily distracted.
  • Being withdrawn and losing friends.
  • Either refusing to eat or eating a lot, causing a person to either lose or gain weight quickly.
  • Tense or sore muscles.
  • Feeling physically awful, with unexplained aches and pains.
  • Not wanting to go to school, uni or work.

How do you help someone you are concerned about?10

youthbeyondblue suggests that if you are worried about someone you should:

  • Look - for signs of depression.
  • Talk - about what's going on.
  • Listen - to their experiences.
  • Seek help - together.

Young people often talk about feeling uncomfortable with aspects of the health system and with health professionals who provide care to the general community. They tend to be otherwise well and the health system is unfamiliar to them.

In trying to seek help it may be useful to seek health professionals or services that have a specific focus or interest in younger people and are used to developing supports and levels of trust with young people in similar circumstances. Headspace would be an example of such a service.

Other ways you can try to help:

  • Keep communication open and don't rush into judgements.
  • Be available without being intrusive or 'pushy'.
  • Spend time with the person.
  • Take the person's feelings seriously.
  • Encourage and support friendships.
  • Encourage activities that promote mental health, such as exercise, good eating, regular sleep, and doing things the person enjoys.
  • Give positive feedback.
  • Let the person know that you love them.

What are the causes of mental illness?

Most mental illnesses are thought to be caused by a variety of factors including:

  • Biological factors - either inherited or environmental.
  • Negative early life experiences - abuse, neglect, death of a relative or other losses and trauma.
  • Individual factors - self-esteem or way of thinking.
  • Current social circumstances - school, work, financial, relationship or family stress, or negative life events.
  • Serious illness or physical injury.

How do you treat mental illness?

Research shows that getting the right type of help and getting it early is crucial to the effective management of mental illness. Treatment could include:

  • Psychological therapy, including cognitive behaviour therapy or interpersonal therapy, which aims to help people change negative thoughts and feelings.
  • Medication, in more severe cases.
  • Regular exercise, which research suggests may be effective in preventing depression and also in treating mild depression.11

Young people who have major depression may be at risk of suicide and, if they are, they need urgent help. Consult your doctor, the emergency department of your local hospital or a mental health professional, like a psychologist or psychiatrist.

Where can I find out more?

  • Talk to your GP, your school or university councillor
  • Contact your local community youth worker
  • Check out Headspace's website for information or to find your nearest Headspace centre. The Bupa Health Foundation is a proud partner of Headspace, a national organisation dedicated to improving youth mental health. Together we aim to raise awareness of the issue of youth mental health.
  • For factsheets and more information about different help available go to:
  • 24-hour telephone counselling can be accessed by calling: Kids Help Line. Tel: 1800 55 1800 or Lifeline Tel: 13 11 14.

 Last updated: 20 June 2010


  1. Headspace
  2. Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. Young Australians: their health and wellbeing, Canberra, 2007
  3. ABS, 12-month mental disorders (a), by age group (years, National Survey of Mental Health and Wellbeing: Summary of results, Cat. 4326.0, 2008.
  4. Oakley Browne M, Wells J, Scott K, McGee M (2006). Lifetime prevalence and projected lifetime risk of DSM-IV disorders in Te Rau Hinengaro: the New Zealand Mental Health Survey (NZMHS). Australian and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry; 50:865-874.
  6. Burns,J., Morey, C., Lagelee, A., Mackenzie, A., and Nicholas, J. 2007, 'Reach Out! Innovation in service delivery', Medical Journal of Australia, v.187, n.7, p.S31
  8. Australian Bureau of Statistics (2008). 2007 National Survey of Mental Health and Wellbeing: Summary of Results (4326.0). Canberra. ABS.
  9. youthbeyondblue fact sheet 21: Depression and anxiety in young people. 
  10. Headspace. Fact sheet 13: Information for parents and carers.
  11. Depression and Exercise, Better Health Channel.
Top of page

You may also be interested in

This information has been developed and reviewed for Bupa by health professionals. To the best of their knowledge it is current and based on reputable sources of medical research. It should be used as a guide only and should not be relied upon as a substitute for professional medical or other health professional advice.

Bupa Australia Pty Ltd makes no warranties or representations regarding the completeness or accuracy of the information. Bupa Australia is not liable for any loss or damage you suffer arising out of the use of or reliance on the information. Except that which cannot be excluded by law. We recommend that you consult your doctor or other qualified health professional if you have questions or concerns about your health. For more details on how we produce our health content, visit the About our health information page.

Last published 17 December 2010