Young Australians’ mental health is bouncing back dramatically despite the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic

Despite the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, young Australians’ mental health and wellbeing has dramatically improved, according to new analysis by Australian National University (ANU) researchers.

Over the past two years the ANU Centre for Social Research and Methods has conducted several rounds of a COVID Impact Monitoring survey to examine the effect of the pandemic across key subgroups of the Australian population.

In some much needed good news, its latest survey of more than 3,500 people has found that Australians aged 18 to 24 are feeling more positive about their lives and their future and are experiencing less psychological distress.

“We found a large and significant turnaround in the number of young Australians who said their lives and wellbeing were improving, especially compared to Australians aged 45 to 64,” says study co-author Professor Nicholas Biddle, Associate Director of the ANU Centre for Social Research and Methods.
“More than two in three (67.4%) of young Australians said their life had improved in the last 12 months. This was also the age group with the largest improvement in life satisfaction since our April 2022 survey.
“We also found a 5% decline in psychological distress among Australians aged 18 to 24. This was the age group reporting the biggest decline in psychological distress.”

Read more: Mental health issues the most common long-term health condition in Australia.

These levels of psychological distress, while still higher than pre-pandemic levels, are much lower than 2020 when COVID-19 initially took hold in Australia.

And although young Aussies have continued to have the most elevated level of psychological distress of any age group, compared to pre-COVID levels, this is still encouraging news according to Biddle.

Young person on train, mental health
Credit: Solskin/Getty Images

“Young people have been the people most dramatically impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic in Australia, especially when it comes to their economic security, future prospects and mental health and wellbeing,” he explains. “So, it is heartening to see that the majority of young Australians say there are feeling much better than they were 12 months ago, even though they still face ongoing pandemic pressures.”

The researchers have collected longitudinal data from a series of surveys of the same group of individuals, from just prior to COVID-19 and then eleven times since COVID started to impact Australia.

Across the board they’ve found that levels of life satisfaction have been steadily increasing since January 2022, and levels of psychological distress have also steadily declined between October 2021 and August 2022, for all Australians.

Read more: Seeking mental health and substance use support isn’t keeping people from going back to jail.

“In May 2020, roughly half of Australians thought their life was worse (51.3%), including 6.5% who thought it was much worse,” says Biddle. “By August 2022, only about one in five Australians thought that their life had become worse in the 12 months since August 2021, with only 3.9% thinking that their life had got much worse.

“And in October 2021, 27.2% of adult Australians reported feeling hopeless at least some of the time. By August 2022, this had declined to 22.3%, a drop of about 981,000 Australia adults.

But according to Biddle, this doesn’t mean that Australia has returned to pre-pandemic levels of wellbeing and mental health.

“Life satisfaction was lower in August 2022 than it was in October 2019. There are also still more Australians who have high levels of psychological distress,” he explains. “However, wellbeing and mental health outcomes have improved over recent months as lockdown conditions have substantially eased, and despite high case numbers.”

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