Millennials are driving declining mental health status

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By Steven Mew, the Australian Science Media Centre

Millennials are driving the deterioration of Australia’s mental health, according to a study in PNAS which tracked our mental health over 20 years.

The study followed 9000 households, assessing how the mental health of each generation changed as they aged, and compared the groups to each other at the same age.

They found that people born in the 1990s have poorer mental health for their age than any previous generation, and do not show improvements in mental health as they age, as was experienced by earlier generations.

“Much of the focus to date has been on the declining mental health of school-aged children and adolescents, where we expect their mental health to eventually improve as they enter adulthood. But this study shows this pattern is changing and that it is not just the kids we need to worry about,” said lead author Dr Richard Morris, senior research fellow in the University of Sydney’s Faculty of Medicine and Health.

Dr Nataliya Ilyushina from RMIT University, who was not involved in the study, told the AusSMC that people between 25-34 years old represent the most productive and fertile segment of society, and their declining mental health poses a substantial threat to Australia’s economic future.

“In the immediate term, labour shortages are a concern, and in the long term, the implications extend to diminished family formation and fertility rates,” she says.

The study doesn’t look into the underlying causes of Millennials’ poor mental health, but the researchers suggest that job insecurity, worry about climate change, financial strains, and unfulfilled aspirations like homeownership, could all be contributing.

“These elements, though not explicitly reflected in socio-economic status indicators, greatly impact happiness by casting a shade over the future life outlook,” says Ilyushina.

Professor Eoin Killackey from Orygen explained that although the economy has broadly improved across the lifespan of young people, the benefits of that improvement have not been equally distributed; with young people receiving little direct benefit through greater access to education or housing.

Professor Eoin Killackey

“Instead, education has become more expensive and more competitive to access. Following education or training, employment has become more casualised and less stable for current young people, and increasingly involves periods of unpaid internship work to get a foothold in industry,” he says.

According to Dr Mike Musker from the University of South Australia, while home ownership and a steady job used to be essential life anchors, employment has become more tenuous and contractual, and housing may be out of reach for some.

Dr Musker also says the evolution of phone technology and social media exposes people to the news of the world including wars, climate disasters, and other atrocities, which all impact mental health. 

“We don’t just worry about what’s happening in our local community anymore, but instead we are alerted to everything that is going wrong on the planet.”

“On a positive note, young people are more caring and compassionate, less aggressive, and are more choosey about their careers but they care for the planet and think deeply,” Musker says.

Thankfully, it might not be too late to turn things around, according to Ilyushina.

“Encouragingly, the established evidence is that early intervention in mild to moderate mental health issues can lead to full recovery with a minimal chance of recurrence.”

“Hence, prioritising mental health support for millennials is imperative in national health strategies,” she says.

You can read the rest of the Expert Reaction here.

This article originally appeared in Science Deadline, a weekly newsletter from the AusSMC. You are free to republish this story, in full, with appropriate credit.

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