Last Friday the 22nd of July 2022 the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) released their long-anticipated results for the National Study of Mental Health and Wellbeing (NSMHWB) 2020-2021. Results of this study were collected through the Survey of Health and Wellbeing between December 2020 and July 2021.

These results come 15 years after the last NSMHWB was conducted in 2007. While a lot has happened in the mental health space since, the results show that we still have a long way to go. Results in the 2020-21 study show that rates of people aged 16-85 diagnosed with a mental health condition over that 12-month period has actually increased by 1.4% from 20% in 2007 to 21.4% in 2021.

While it is easy to get disheartened, we acknowledge that these results were recorded during a very challenging time. The COVID-19 pandemic was in full swing leading to significant social, economic and psychological impacts. Australians, and indeed the people of NSW, were faced with all sorts of challenges from lockdowns and border closures to resource shortages and job losses. This was off the back of the devastating impacts of bushfires and floods that preceded the pandemic and were still being felt during this period of time.

Further key insights from the survey include:

  • 15.4% of Australians aged 16-85 years reported experiencing high or very high levels of psychological distress in 2020-2021, with younger aged groups (16-35) experiencing this more than older aged groups (20% compared with 9.6%).
  • Around 3.4 million Australians aged 16-85 years (17.5%) saw a health professional for their mental health in 2020-2021, with 1 in 4 (24.1%) people aged 16-34 years seeing a mental health professional compared with 16.8% of people aged 35-64 years and 7.5% of people aged 65-85 years.
  • 4.4% of people aged 16-85 (864,100 people) accessed other services for their mental health via phone or digital technologies such as crisis support or counselling services, online treatment programs and tools to improve mental health, and mental health support groups and forums.
  • 1 in 6 (16.7%) Australians aged 16-85 years had experienced suicidal thoughts or behaviours in their life. This comprises 16.7% of people who had ever seriously thought about taking their own life, 7.7% who had ever made a plan to take their own life, and 4.8% who had ever attempted to take their own life.
  • 8.8% of Australians aged 16-85 years revealed they had self-harmed at some point in their lifetime.
  • 3 in 10 (30%) people who identified as LGBTQI had an Affective mental health diagnosis such as Depression, Dysthymia or Bipolar between 2020-2021.
  • 1 in 20 people (5.1% or 1 million) aged 16-85 years experienced binge eating in their lifetime. 2.4% of all people aged 16-85 years experienced binge eating in the 12 months from 2020-2021.

In terms of type of mental health diagnoses, 2020-21 saw an increase in prevalence of Anxiety (16.8%) and Affective (7.5%) mental health conditions compared to results founded in 2007, which recorded 14.4% and 6.2% respectively. This is not surprising given the challenges Australians were facing between 2020-2021. It is interesting to note that co-occurring use of alcohol and other drugs (AOD) reduced from 5.1% recorded in 2007 to just 3.3% in 2020-21. Unfortunately, the study does not explain the rationale for this significant drop. A more in-depth investigation into this is warranted and could shed light on whether or not there has been an actual reduction in co-occurring AOD use or that such issues have gone under-reported.

The study also showed that 2 million people diagnosed mental health condition in 2020-2021 sought consultations with health professionals for their mental health. It is concerning that of these people, more than 1 out of 4 respondents (28.5%) revealed they either did not have their need for counselling support met or only had it partially met. 26.1% either did not have their need for information met or only partially met. This is a disappointing statistic and demonstrates a significant gap in skills and knowledge still prevalent among health professionals as it relates to mental health support. We hope that the recent NSW health literacy development project will help to shift this around.

What is even more concerning is that 2.2 million people diagnosed with a mental health condition did not have any consultations with health professionals for their mental health. Of these people, 1 in 5 (20.3%) reported that their need for counselling was not met.

There are some positives to take from this most recent study. Some of these have been outlined below:

  • Rates of co-occurring AOD use appears to be dropping
  • ABS now uses and supports the use of Mindframe guidelines on responsible, accurate and safe reporting on suicide, mental ill-health and alcohol and other drugs.
  • ABS now uses more respectful and recovery-oriented language like “lived experience” and “psychological distress”
  • ABS has provided mental health resources for people to access if they need as well as self-management strategies for mental health.
  • ABS’s NSMHWB study has become a lot more inclusive, taking in consideration people with lived experience of self-harm as separate to suicide as well as LGBTQI people and eating related issues.

While there are some positives to take from this study, the statistics demonstrate that we still have a long way to go with diagnosed mental health conditions continuing to rise. There is also clearly a lot more work to be done with increasing the mental health literacy of health professionals as well as the access to these services along with counselling support.

While BEING – Mental Health Consumers welcome NSMHWB’s increased level of inclusive research, we would like to see more representation of rural and remote as well as culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD) communities and First Nations peoples included in these statistics in the future.

BEING – Mental Health Consumers welcome NSMHWB’s use of Mindframe guidelines and continued pursuit of adopting more responsible, accurate and safe reporting on suicide, mental ill-health and alcohol and other drugs.